Consciousness: An Introduction

  • Susan Blackmore
Hodder and Stoughton: 2003. 544 pp. £19.99 Oxford University Press: 2003. 460 pp. $39.95 (pbk), $79 (hbk)
Books about consciousness divide into the scientific and the 'cosmic' — but which is this?

The study of consciousness being rather broad, its more science-oriented practitioners quickly become adept at glancing through promising-looking new books to discern whether they partake a little too much of the 'cosmic'. This isn't usually difficult, but Susan Blackmore's new book almost seems to have been intentionally designed to thwart such attempts at classification. Consciousness: An Introduction is clearly intended and marketed as a college-level textbook, but it sports a cover that is dominated by a glowing humanoid outline festooned with chakra-like circles and reaching ecstatically towards some sort of celestial radiance.

A glance through the copious figures initially reveals a reassuring profusion of brains and graphs and experimental protocols, but in the final quarter of the book these give way to buddhas, drug-induced visions and floating spirits. Even the usually reliable strategy of investigating the author's credentials just generates new puzzles. A search through Blackmore's oeuvre turns up near-death experiences and memes, a book on testing your psychic powers and a chapter on why parapsychology tells us nothing about consciousness. For decades she described herself as a hopeful and open-minded investigator of psychic phenomena, but was all the while on the board of the magazine Skeptical Inquirer, and in 2001 she announced the end of her involvement in such studies. It is easy to imagine potential readers or teachers giving up in bafflement, unable to figure out just what kind of book this is.

That would be a shame, though, because Blackmore has in fact written a truly excellent textbook. Two years ago she gave up her university position to work on this project full-time, and the attention shows. The book's 27 detailed chapters cover every major aspect of consciousness, and Blackmore reveals herself to be a careful and judicious researcher: the central figures and theories of most chapters are familiar, but they are presented with unusually careful attention to details of argumentation and evidence, rather than being reduced to the sort of simple iconic positions that fuel most 'battle of ideas' texts. Many lesser-known authors and positions are also introduced, and some of the most interesting ones receive extended treatment. The book is nearly encyclopaedic in its comprehensiveness, but the discussion is carefully structured: ideas appear not as individual items to be memorized, but as steps in an integrated, multifaceted process of investigation.

The book does have a bit of a split personality, seeming at times like a guidebook to self-discovery and at others like a primer on recondite academic disputes. It soon becomes clear, however, that this bipolar character is strategic. The chattier bits (full of second-person questions and exhortations) provide excitement and motivation, and encourage students to adopt an engaged, reflective approach to the material, whereas the more scholarly parts delve unapologetically and at length into the details of particular theories and problems. This double structure should make the book accessible and attractive to a wide range of readers.

There are a few notable problems. One is an unfortunate tendency for favourite authors, such as Daniel Dennett and Benjamin Libet, to crop up again and again in different contexts, sometimes in place of others who would arguably be more relevant. Blackmore draws on a wide variety of philosophically engaged scientists (including Francis Crick, Antonio Damasio, Ray Jackendoff, Vilayanur Ramachandran and Francisco Varela), but is much less careful with scientifically engaged philosophers, often letting Dennett stand in for the whole pack. This is most problematic in the chapters on neuroscience, where one would have liked to see more coverage of the specific proposals of philosophers who specialize in the topic, such as Patricia and Paul Churchland, Kathleen Akins, Ned Block, Owen Flanagan and Thomas Metzinger. Blackmore, an experienced author of popular-science books, often uses the journalist's technique of using individual scholars as symbolic representatives of broader positions, a practice that is less appropriate in the academic context and only exacerbates the above problems. The later chapters on parapsychology, hallucinatory states and meditative spiritual traditions are also less successful than the rest; Blackmore's combination of expertise and scepticism makes her an ideal 'tour guide' for such realms, but ultimately these chapters establish little and do not seem to connect with the ideas developed in the earlier sections.

Ultimately, this remains a very satisfying book. It could serve well as a core text for courses in philosophy, psychology and related disciplines, and would provide useful context for other, more discipline-specific texts. Its broad scope and clear explanations also make it an excellent choice for independent study. It's a shame about the cover, though. This might seem a petty complaint, but considering that academic respect for the study of consciousness is still grudging and probational, such matters of appearance are not trivial. I'll be using Consciousness in my course next semester, but I'll also be passing out a nice selection of book covers on the first day of class.