The book “Conscious: by Annaka Harris is an ambitious undertaking in providing insights on how the conscious is integrated with matter. Its aim is to pry loose as many false assumptions about consciousness as possible and shed some light on less than common-sensical intuitions. And, in a sense, it delivers what is promised, aside from the fact that it is far from being a, quote, “brief guide” on such a deep topic. It is brief, but lacks the qualities of being a guide. Rather, the book serves as a dispatcher, highlighting concepts within the current state of knowledge. This shortcoming, as some would call it, is actually a benefit to me, as it only took me one day to read it from cover to cover and extract core concepts and references for further study. 

Quotes & concepts

Here’s my visual depiction of quotes & concepts I listed when thoroughly reading the book:

Core concepts of the book:

  • How our intuitions make it difficult to recognize consciousness (see example of Locked-in Syndrome), and thus how hard it is (or will be) to recognize consciousness outside of animal life, if you’re thinking of AI. 
  • How consciousness is often “the last to know” in the process of perceiving reality (I love the reference to Michael S. Gazangia’s book, “The Mind’s Past,” on the phased construction of experience).

The “Panpsychism” – as the possibility that all matter is imbued with consciousness in some sense (see David Skribna’s publication where he surveys of the history of scientific arguments for panpsychism).

The current state of technology in detecting consciousness – the method of arriving at a measure of a “perturbational complexity index” value, that is finding a critical threshold being the minimum measure of brain activity supporting consciousness. This method is called “Zap and Zip”

  • How both conscious and nonconscious states seem to be compatible with any behavior, even those associated with emotion, so a behavior, in itself, does not necessarily signal the presence of consciousness (see examples of plant responses to the environment that are analogous to those of animals). 
  • How our seemingly conscious behavior can be easily affected by infections (author uses effects of Toxoplasma to illustrate that).
  • “Umwelt” as a term introduced by biologist Jakob von Uexkull to describe a given experience based on the senses used by a particular organism, and how Umwelt links to the definition of Consciousness used throughout the book. 
  • The hard problem of matter – Since consciousness is, in fact, the only thing we truly understand firsthand, then, according to Strawson, it is a matter that’s utterly mysterious, because we have no understanding of its intrinsic nature. 

The book is a good introduction to the concepts related to consciousness and the current state of thinking on the topic for those that are already aware of the subject. I find it as a brief and concise summary of the subject that has updated me on the matter (as it might others interested in giving it a go). 

by Annaka Harris
Published: June 2019
Length: pages

Time to read: 6h

Related Concepts

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