Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Susan Blackmore and the "illusion" of consciousness

A posting and comments in View from the Right about widespread atheism undermining British and European civilization cites Dr. Susan Blackmore as an example of "materialist nihilism" (scroll down to near the end). Commenter Michael Jose brings up her writings in connection with "anti-existence atheism," and links to his own blog, which declares, "Start with denying that God exists and you end up denying that you exist," and in turn links to an article by Susan Blackmore published in the New Scientist titled, "The Grand Illusion: Why consciousness only exists when you look for it." (My apologies for this two-degrees-of-separation lead-in; I'm just trying to give everyone their due by linking to them individually.)

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Susan Blackmore wonders if consciousness is inexplicable
because of how we think about it.

Blackmore includes in her piece a version of the mind-body problem that has plagued philosophers and scientists for centuries: how can the experience of consciousness arise from matter? They belong to different realms of existence. Blackmore then goes one better as she analyzes consciousness itself, and can't find any "there" there, either:
Could it be that, after all, there is no stream of consciousness; no movie in the brain; no picture of the world we see in front of our eyes? Could all this be just a grand illusion?
She does not deny that consciousness exists, which would be absurd, but suggests that the way we conceive of it — as a continuous stream of perceptions, complete with an unseen basement where things we're not aware of are stored until we haul them up in some neurological bucket or they spontaneously climb the stairs into our mind's eye — is an illusion.
Perhaps … there is no stream of conscious experiences on which we act. Instead, at any time a whole lot of different things are going on in our brain at once. None of these things is either “in” or “out” of consciousness but every so often, something happens to create what seems to have been a unified conscious stream; an illusion of richness and continuity.

It sounds bizarre, but try to catch yourself not being conscious. More than a hundred years ago the psychologist William James likened introspective analysis to “trying to turn up the gas quickly enough to see how the darkness looks." The modern equivalent is looking in the fridge to see whether the light is always on. However quickly you open the door, you can never catch it out. The same is true of consciousness. Whenever you ask yourself, “Am I conscious now?” you always are.

But perhaps there is only something there when you ask. Maybe each time you probe, a retrospective story is concocted about what was in the stream of consciousness a moment before, together with a “self” who was apparently experiencing it. Of course there was neither a conscious self nor a stream, but it now seems as though there was.
Is this a call for "materialist nihilism," as Michael Jose charges? It might be useful to fill in a little of the background here.

Susan Blackmore's field was for many years psychical research, in which I also have an interest. I knew of her for that reason and read some of her articles, even her sort-of autobiography. Unlike many other scientists doing similar research, Blackmore says she consistently got negative results in her experiments. That is, she could come up with no evidence to indicate that paranormal abilities were demonstrated. She was aware of the "experimenter effect" — skeptical scientists performing tests seem to be wet blankets who scare off psi abilities in subjects, who produce better results with experimenters who are sympathetic to claims for the paranormal — but Blackmore claims that she was initially quite the believer, even having had an out-of-body experience herself.

Eventually, she decided that she was wasting her time with psychical research, and quit. You have to credit her with courage in making a move that distanced her, and in some cases provoked rejection, from former colleagues.

Even after her anti-conversion, though, she retained some connections with the Society for Psychical Research. (SPR is not an advocacy organization and has no corporate views. Its members include a few skeptics.) Blackmore and I both attended the SPR annual conference in 1999 in Northampton, England, where she gave a presentation. It was called "Horses for Courses" and, if my recollection is correct, was about an experiment she particpated in where a clairvoyant who was said to have precognitive powers was tested on his ability to forecast the winners of horse races. No statistically significant record of correct predictions was found.

I wanted to talk with her, but she seemed (understandably, I guess) defensive and constantly surrounded by a coterie, and I chickened out from trying to strike up a conversation. Incidentally, at that time she had already adopted the multi-colored hair style you can see in the photo above and which apparently she's kept. She's attractive enough to carry it off without looking goofy.

Following her withdrawal from psychical research, I have read only second-hand reports about her new interests, but for a time it seemed she had reached a quasi-Buddhist outlook. In Buddhist psychology, there is no "I," no eternal or even temporary ego or center of consciousness that experiences things. There is only a stream of consciousness without anyone who is conscious, and the ultimate reality is described as a Void, shunyata. It can be inferred from Blackmore's New Scientist piece that she has now gone beyond Buddhism — she's not even convinced that consciousness is a continuous stream.

There does not seem to me any ground, then, for holding her up as a terrible example of materialist beliefs: Buddhism puts no stock in anything material, or even mental or spiritual in the sense those words are often used, and the same can be said for her "illusionist" take on consciousness.

Okay, but how about "nihilism" and "anti-existence"? There are various definitions of nihilism, including "a revolutionary doctrine that advocates destruction of the social system for its own sake; complete denial of all established authority and institutions; and the delusion that things (or everything, including the self) do not exist; a sense that everything is unreal." The third or fourth might conceivably apply to Blackmore's world view, depending on the interpretation of unreal, a discussion of which would take us into a lengthy digression. From the tone and context of Michael Jose's comment, though, it seems likely that it was the political meanings that he had in mind.

Personally, I don't find Blackmore's trans-Buddhist position, so to speak, much help in understanding the mystery of consciousness, of how "dead" and "unconscious" matter can become aware of itself. To suggest that consciousness may actually be intermittent in some fashion or only there when we (but what's "we"?) decide for it to be there doesn't solve the basic problem. It just kicks the can down the road a bit farther, as she herself seems to recognize in the last paragraph of her article. Whatever — we've come a long way from any kind of "nihilism" or "non-existence" that can sour a nation's pride or will to survive.

Jose has another complaint against Blackmore, although he's not too specific as to what it is, which he bases on this column. But, although I am automatically suspicious of anything published in the dreaded Guardian, and Blackmore's premise is at least debatable, nothing strikes me as philosophically or morally objectionable.

If you accept for the sake of discussion that we have damaged the planet we live on (undeniable) to the point where ecological disaster is now unavoidable (highly questionable), there is nothing wrong with considering the choices that will entail; it's highly responsible, as long as you remember the alternatives are all hypothetical. Why not discuss as rationally as we can who or what we will choose to "save" in the worst-case scenario? It's no different from emergency medical teams performing triage at a disaster site.

I guess this comes down to a defense of Susan Blackmore, whose conclusion about psychical research I don't share and whose ideas about the psychology of consciousness I can't well connect with. But it's pretty far-fetched to blame her for contributing to British dhimmitude or rejection of God.


Michael Blowhard said...

"Trans-Buddhist" is nice!

The stream of consciousness ... The dream ... It's great, but that bit about "who's doing the perceiving" is always the tough one, isn't it? There always seems to be someone ("I"?) who's taking the movie in. And who's that?

I kinda like the way Hinduism/Vedanta takes the question on. Where Buddhism denies that there's a perceiver, Vedanta says "sure there's a perceiver -- it's god!" You're a vehicle (or something) through which the One is doing his playful self-manifesting.

I'm not sure whether that really explains anything, but it pleases me and feels right. Do you go for any such account?

Rick Darby said...


Yes, my spiritual template was strongly influenced by Vedanta. (For those who are not familiar with it, Vedanta is a term of relatively recent vintage coined to signify the core psychology of Hinduism, as distinguished from fakirs, incense, animal-form gods, pilgrimages to the Ganges, etc.).

I suspect that a Buddhist experience of the Clear Light of the Void is similar to the Hindu/Vedantic samadhi. Or, for that matter, a Christian mystic's absorption in the Godhead. At that rarefied level of consciousness, words are at best inadequate.

At the time the Buddha is thought to have lived — that astonishing 5th century BC — the complex of traditions we now call Hinduism was several thousand years old, and I suspect it had been corrupted among the masses by superstition. The followers of the Buddha probably adopted terms such as nirvana (literally blowing out, extinction) and the Void to guard against the human tendency to personalize the Absolute, or treat it as a "thing" in the world of things, which popular Hindusim may have already taken on. They were also, in keeping with the Buddha's teachings, anti-worship, emphasizing instead right living and moral qualities.

All this caused Buddhists to react against the ideal of Brahman and its abuses. Their philosopher/psychologists distrusted language, however exalted, that could be misunderstood in the world of forms. So I am not sure that we should take ideas like "pure awareness" and Void literally.

Glaivester said...

The issue on consciousness is this:

Ultimately, saying that "consciousness is an illusion" is saying it doesn';t exist, because what you are consciousness "really is" redefines it into something that is no longer consciousness.

As I see it, here is the real issue behind "consciousness is an illusion."

If there is no supernatural soul, but all life is materialistic, then there is no basis for identity. It's like the old quibble about Star Trek transporters: do they really transport a person or just kill them and disintegrate their body, anf then create a copy who takes their place?

Likewise, without some sort of soul, what is the basis of identity? We are not made of any particular piece of matter, we are constantly adding new material and removing old from our bodies, so matter cannot be the source of identity. But if the material making up our bodies is fungible, what is to distinguish me from an exact copy of me? If someone were to kill me and disintegrate my body and replace me with an exact replica, who has all of my memories, etc., how is that different from my being here? Or put another way, is the me that exists a minute from now really me, or a copy of me, ith the real me having died?

Ultimatley, without a continuity of consciousness, there is no self, i.e. we do not exist. I do not see continuity of consciousness being consistent with a materialistic worldview.

It's not that I think that science has not been able to explain consciousness and so I look for a supernatural element. It is that I think that materialistm ultimately contradicts consciousness.

Rick Darby said...


Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I basically agree: unless there is a continuing center of consciousness that survives all external changes (supposedly every cell in our body is replaced within seven years), what meaning can will, choice, emotions, or just experience itself, have?

I also agree that the loss of a spiritual orientation is a key component in the materialism so much in evidence in the modern world.

But, as I said in the posting, Susan Blackmore is a dubious example or symptom. Her rather obscure and esoteric psychological musings don't seem to me to have any connection with the zeitgeist whose corollaries we both deplore.

See also my comment above about the language in which Buddhist psychology is framed.