Richard Sprague

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[book] Conscious by Annaka Harris

Created: 2019-08-11 ; Updated: 2019-08-11

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/41571759-conscious

Book Conscious

Short, succinct, easy-to-read and understand. What’s not to like?


My unedited notes

She starts with the definition, citing David Nagel’s idea from What it’s like to be a bat:

An organism is conscious if there is something that it is like to be that organism.

The “hard problem” of consciousness is why we feel it at all.

Daniel Chamovitz book What a Plant Knows: Even plants can react to stimuli, communicate with others, form memories, etc.

Suzanne Simard’s 2016 TED talk “How Trees Talk to Each Other”.

The concept of umwelt, the set of senses experienced by, say, bats versus bees vs humans.

Michael Gazzaniga describes experiments (including interesting ones by Benjamin Libet) that show the lag between our actions and our conscious awareness in a wonderful chapter aptly titled “The Brain Knows Before You Do” in his book The Mind’s Past.

Experiments by Daniel Wegner and Thalia Wheatley show that “The feeling of agency can be fooled”

Many parasites manipulate the behavior of their hosts. See, for example, the description in Natalie Angier NYTimes 2007, or the work on the relationship between Streptococcus and OCD. (e.g. NIH)

Argument that you can only discuss consciousness — you only know what it means — if you’ve experienced it.

Consciousness is distinct from the sense of self, which disappears under the influence of psychedelic drugs.

See the work by David Eagleman on creating new senses David Eagleman, “Can We Create New Senses for Humans?,” TED talk, March 2015, https://www.ted.com/talks/david_eagleman_can_we_create_new_senses_for_humans.

and of course the work on split brains that shows how one “side” of us apparently is unable to consciously tell the work of the other “side”.

Iain McGilchrist in Master and His Emissary argues that consciousness is a process, with gradations, not an on/off thing.

Panpsychism

Philip Goff: “Panpsychism Is Crazy, but It’s Also Most Probably True.”

David Skrbina Panpsychism in the West is a book that argues the case from a scientific point of view.

Philosopher Ned Block (NYU) notes (in Blackmore, Conversations on Consciousness, 28.) that a third of his students don’t apparently understand the concept, as if it’s just a different personality type.

If there’s a free will, then evolution can’t explain consciousness because there wouldn’t be natural selection.

Astrophysicist Adam Frank argues in his essay Minding Matter (2017) that consciousness might be a new kind of physics.

Rebecca Goldstein makes the case that we in fact already know that consciousness is integral to matter because we are made of matter ourselves: “consciousness is an intrinsic property of matter … only relational properties of matter are known, not intrinsic properties”

to which Galen Strawson flips into the opposite problem: matter is the hard concept to explain. We know we are conscious.

Then there’s the “combination problem”: if there’s a teensy bit of consciousness everywhere, then what happens when you sum it all up into a single individual? Is there a bit of consciousness in my liver? Am I the conglomeration of that consciousness plus the part in my legs, etc.?

Consciousness and time

See the book Your Brain Is a Time Machine by Dean Buonomano, a UCLA neuroscientist, who points out two different conceptions: presentism, that only the present moment is ‘real’, and (2) eternalism, that there is no time and that we just feel like there is.

See quantum physicist John Wheeler’s delayed choice experiments:

Wheeler introduced the element of time and made the prediction that even if we perform such a measurement after a photon has passed through one of the slits, we would still get the same effect, causing the photon to act like a particle retroactively. In other words, he predicted that a measurement in the present would mysteriously influence the past. This is the delayed-choice experiment, and it was finally conducted in 2007, confirming Wheeler’s prediction1

Cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman discusses observing a photon arriving from across the Universe and concludes

… the choice I make today determines the ten-billion-year-history of that photon. 2


  1. Vincent Jacques et al., “Experimental Realization of Wheeler’s Delayed-Choice Gedanken Experiment,” Science 315, no. 5814: 966–68, 16 February 2007, https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1136303.
  2. Rob Reid and Donald Hoffman, “The Case against Reality,” After On (podcast), episode 26, 30 April 2018; see also John A. Wheeler, “Law Without Law,” 190.