Conscious. A brief guide to the fundamental mystery of the mind (Annaka Harris, 2019)

This book is about consciousness and a best seller at that. So what is the message that has pulled so many readers in? Annaka Harris starts with pointing out that there is a great mystery staring at us at every moment, without us taking notice very often: We are conscious. Or we have consciousness. The phrase you choose depends on your perspective. She then sets out to “… pass along the exhilaration that comes from discovering just how surprising consciousness is.” I think she succeeds in pointing out and exploring some fascinating issues, but if you are familiar with meditation, the mindfulness literature and or cognitive science, you will not be very surprised. That being said, she does a good job in presenting those ideas in a very readable way.

Her starting point is that consciousness is experience itself. This is the reason why we do not continuously ask ourselves why “… any collection of matter [i.e. mine or your body] in the universe be conscious?” How come we are conscious at all? What does she mean by consciousness? As noted, Harris argues that the essence of consciousness is experience. Here she builds upon philosophers like Thomas Nagel, and his classic essay “What is it like to be a bat?” is often cited. In this text he speculates on the phenomenal world (the umwelt as called by another writer) of a bat. Depending heavily on its own sonar when navigating, its experience of the world must be very different from ours. But the main point is that it experiences: there is something that it is like to be that bat. Somehow, such an idea does not go well with for instance a stone. In other words there is some kind of consciousness in some “collections of matter” (a bat, you and me) but not in others (a stone).

When, how and why are “the light turned on” particular collections of matter? To Harris (and the rest of us, probably) this is another great mystery. “But hold on”, you may say. “Consciousness simply follows from the development of a central nervous system. When this reaches a certain level of complexity consciousness appears.” According to some, Harris included, it is not that simple. It is, basically, the same question we humans have put to the Universe: How could something come out of nothing? Or in our case: How can consciousness/experience/sentience come out of insentient matter? This question is what the philosopher David Chalmer called “the hard problem of consciousness.” (as opposed to the «easy» problems like where is the language center located in the brain etc).

The author next points out that some of our most basic beliefs about consciousness may be wrong: 1. That consciousness in another system can be detected from the outside, and 2. That consciousness is essential to our behavior. Various empirical studies are presented supporting those two observations. To readers not familiar with the literature this is a fascinating list of studies. Examples are the locked-in syndrome, where the body is paralyzed but consciousness completely intact. In such cases, there are often no way of knowing whether the person is conscious or not. Another (disturbing) example is anesthesia awareness, where the patient is given narcosis but is staying conscious all the same. The only person knowing this is the poor patient undergoing surgery! A different kind of studies demonstrates the opposite: that for instance trees and artificial intelligence (AI) exhibit behavior usually taken as indicators of consciousness. Here, an observer may be led to believe there is consciousness where there is not.

To sum up: the first belief above is not correct. What about the other? Harris is convinced that it does not do any better, and finds evidence in neuroscience. One well accepted but surprising finding about the brain has to do with how it processes information and generates understanding. The process looks like this (simplified of course): the brain receives sensory input, processes those together with existing knowledge from memory, makes a decision, creates a meaningful thought (this is a so and so), and at last presents the result into consciousness. So, understanding (at the basic level) is a construction made by your system (not by you as “I”), and it is always after the fact. You live in the past, so to say.

But there is one more finding of the same caliber: Neuroscience has also demonstrated that our will/intentions are, at least in many cases, illusions constructed after the fact – so to say. A range of studies and analyses are presented by the author to support this claim. But the text is quite detailed and the findings well established so I will simply refer the interested reader to the book itself. Harris concludes that the “I” (my consciousness) simply witness decisions unfolding. In other words, consciousness does not seem to be essential to behavior (belief 2 above).

The self is at the core of consciousness. All our experiences happen to or around the self. And the world within and without is perceived as a unified and integrated whole. We all know this, of course, but the mechanism behind is not equally well known. It is actually the result of the brain doing its work through the “binding” processes. These provide us with the “illusion that physical occurrences are perfectly synchronized with our conscious experience of them in the present moment.” In addition, all sensory data are processed by the brain and added to all other data (like knowledge stored in memory), presenting consciousness with a unified and meaningful story about what is going on.

But the sense of a self can be taken out of the equation. One may, as in meditation, be aware of everything taking place in consciousness, but without a sense of the self. Neuroscience has demonstrated that this sense of self is located to an area of the brain called “the default mode network.” Meditation, psychedelica and other influences can still the activity in this particular area. Consciousness then persists, but the sense of the self is lost. In other words, the self and the consciousness do not depend upon each other. 

Split-brain research is part of the data leading to this conclusion, and more. There are some cases where the “bridge” connecting the left and right brain hemispheres (corpus calossum) is severed. This leaves the person with two brain-halves which have turned out to be somewhat specialized functionally. The left is known to harbor the language center and lean towards linear thinking modes. The right is better with aesthetics, emotions and space perception (this is very simplified). It also turns out that decisions may be made in one such hemisphere, without the other knowing about it and sometimes they are in conflict. So, in effect, there is one person but two consciousnesses.

One other finding from this research is that when the person experiences conflicting intentions, and/or act differently from what was planned, he or she will present a story (unconsciously) made up as an explanation. It seems that we all carry with us this capability which is usually called “the interpreter.” This function is probably also responsible for keeping up the pretense of having a self, orchestrating our mental life.

The key seems to be that consciousness is not tethered to a particular location in the brain, nor to a particular function like the self. And certainly not to the pineal gland, as thought by Descartes. It is even hard to pinpoint the exact function of consciousness, according to Harris. She then wonders if consciousness may be intrinsic to all matter? In this speculation, she does not refer to thoughts or sense of self, remember. It is about consciousness in its raw and most basic form. With humans, consciousness is involved in thoughts, but in animals it would be something different altogether (“what is it like to be a bat”) but still some kind of experience.

This is actually the view referred to as panpsychism. There are many forms of panpsychism, but the one chosen by Harris and referred to above is quite straight forward. Whichever version, they all target physicalism at its most central problem: Matter is held to be the only “reality”, and non-material phenomena (like the consciousness) have some kind of material basis. In this view, consciousness is held to emerge from processes in the brain. Panpsychism, on the other hand, have another idea.

Panpsychism points to two problems with physicalism in this context: 1. They reduce everything to matter, but do not explain what matter is at the most basic level. It is common knowledge now that at the particle level matter (you, for instance) is mostly empty space with some particles clinging together creating structures. But what are those particles really? Some kind of energy, probably, but what is energy? There are no good answers. 2. If consciousness is an epiphenomenon of brain activity: what does this mean? It is a statement explaining nothing. A wave emerges from the sea, but it is still the sea. If consciousness emerges out of brain activity, it is something else than those activities. Brain activity is electro-chemical reactions, while consciousness is a nonmaterial experience (or being, as existential philosophers would remind us).

As Harris points out, we are back to the hard problem of consciousness: How can consciousness come out of insentient matter? Hard-nosed physicalists/materialists will deny there such a problem. Instead they offer the explanation that consciousness is an illusion. But this is almost silly: Illusions presuppose consciousness, after all. Panpsychism, on their side, points out that the only possible explanation is that consciousness in its raw form is an inherent quality of matter – or basically the same thing.

These are, of course, strange notions whichever view one adopts. Mainstream science is not, in general, partial to the idea of panpsychism, and the latter have its own problems to sort out. What should be remembered, though, is that today’s brand of panpsychism distinguish between thoughts, sense of self and unified perceptions on the one hand, and raw consciousness without those qualities on the other. The latter is not readily available but may be touched upon in meditation and under the influence of certain drugs.

To sum up: We all know we are conscious, but how does it come to be, what use does it have and who have it or not? Harris have no definitive answers, but points out some salient issues and various attempts at clarifying them. It is still a mystery but one we should never forget. And as the author alludes to: This might well be what consciousness is for.

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