Susan Blackmore: My own consciousness

I believe (although I’ve never seen it for myself) that inside my skull is a brain containing billions of neurons connected to each other in trillions of ways, with signals zooming about, setting off other signals, and generally creating massively complicated loops, coalitions, sustained patterns, and multiple parallel organised streams of information that combined together control the behaviour of this – my body. And that’s it. So how come I feel as though there is a conscious “me” as well? The oh-so-tempting idea that I am something else – a soul, a spirit, a mystical entity – is rubbish, although I once believed in it. This question nags at me so much that I have devoted most of my life to it – through research, writing, and thirty years of daily meditation. But I still don’t understand. And the more I look, the less substantial my own self seems to be. What is consciousness? And who is conscious? I really don’t know.

Dr Sue Blackmore is a freelance writer, lecturer and broadcaster, and a Visiting Professor at the University of Plymouth. Her latest book is Ten Zen Questions.


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27 thoughts on “Susan Blackmore: My own consciousness”

  1. “The oh-so-tempting idea that I am something else – a soul, a spirit, a mystical entity – is rubbish”

    Well, this is not a defense of my personal belief (because I don't know the answer, and I question it too) But a definitive statement about it by anyone, Phd or no, is rubbish. Because: No. One. Knows.

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  2. How can you spend your whole life searching for the answer to something you have clearly already decided on?
    “The oh-so-tempting idea that I am something else – a soul, a spirit, a mystical entity – is rubbish, although I once believed in it.”

    Ain't that a bigfat double-standard?

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  3. “So how come I feel as though there is a conscious “me” as well? The oh-so-tempting idea that I am something else – a soul, a spirit, a mystical entity – is rubbish, although I once believed in it.”

    What convinced you that the idea of a soul or spirit is rubbish?

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  4. I often wonder what is the force that takes dead flesh and makes it alive. I believe there is this force is connected to the idea of consciousness.

    Perhaps there is a soul that tries to inhabit and breath life into objects that are molecularly favorable towards being alive.

    Maybe our understanding of consciousness is that of a soul, experiencing life through the body. It's ability to absorb information and process it is limited by the brain and body that it inhabits.

    That's my theory anyway.

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  5. I believe the perception of a “soul” is a side effect of abstract thinking. Because we can be aware of our own thinking, or our own “self”, we tend to believe that “self” IS something. It's an illusion, but unavoidable if we are to be conscious thinkers.

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  6. It IS rubbish because there is absolutely no evidence for it besides our extremely biased and flawed self-perception.

    When your neurons are firing, you are thinking. When they aren't, you aren't. When a certain part of the brain is removed, certain thoughts and brain capabilities cease. Did they remove a part of your soul? No, just a part of your physical brain.

    Occam's razor suggests that the explanation for consciousness without the soul is superior, because the soul provides no explanatory value. Fewer variables with equal explanation of phenomenon.

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  7. Let's suppose that, in her brief absence, I filch £50 from Sue Blackmore's handbag. Does she disapprove of my behaviour (assuming I am a free agent). I rather think that she would – judging my behaviour to be dishonest. Yet how can a complex of neurons make a moral judgment about another complex of neurons?

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  8. …can u pass that 50 quid to me…I think I want to go spend it on some books reading about this interesting notion called 'consciousness'!

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  9. As above – how can she be sure that anything so controversial is “rubbish” – anyone as emphatic about it as she is seems to me to be covering some thing/belief up from herself.

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  10. I always noticed that Sue Blackmore talks too fast as if ideas are spilling out of her head with unremitting enthusiasm for themselves. She probably isn't conscious I know I am.

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  11. “I believe (although I’ve never seen it for myself) that inside my skull is a brain containing billions of neurons connected to each other in trillions of ways, with signals zooming about, setting off other signals, and generally creating massively complicated loops, coalitions, sustained patterns, and multiple parallel organised streams of information that combined together control the behaviour of this – my body.”

    Change a few words and the above quote could be describing the Universe. We are all microcosms, and parts of the macrocosm. The universe itself is most likely part of a larger, probably infinite number of universes. So don't worry…be happy!

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  12. …and keep in mind, that nature wastes nothing. Everything is recycled. Our components have been in the system forever, and will be forever.

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  13. “When your neurons fire, you are thinking. When they aren't, you aren't”

    Fine, but what makes them fire? If the brain controls everything in the body, what controls the brain? Why isn't the firing of neurons completely random? When you lift your arm for no specific reason, what is it that initiates the process in the brain that ultimately leads to your arm being lifted?

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  14. “a soul, a spirit, a mystical entity” – Is there something more than me that is still me?

    Evidence strongly suggests that no system including the firing of your head is ever truely in isolation. And those systems permeate impressions (ripples) upon the universe that are forever, at least as far as our limited set of nerons can tell. Perhaps we persist forever as a kind of ripple that becomes undetectable in the sea of ripples we live in.

    Rubbish? sounds a bit angry to me maybe driven by a question that you can't reason away. Stop trying and reason about what you can. So,
    make a belief out of what you can't grasp or simpley ignore it.

    Why believe? It's a choice and it leaves me statisfied.

    respectfully
    – Doug

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  15. Susan Blackmore… not as clever as she thinks she is. She's jumped on Dawkins's bandwagon as a substitute for doing serious thinking herself.

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  16. You guys aren't scientists, and you cling to superstition and “feelings” more than you do to facts, so let me explain it simply so you can understand:

    If the evidence doesn't suggest that something is true, then it is to be considered rubbish until otherwise.

    (Note: Something simply being *possible* is not the same as being supported by evidence.)

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  17. Note: “Wrong until proven right” is an expression of faith. There is no need for someone to hold the belief “It's all rubbish until proven otherwise” in order to be a serious thinker. One is capable of holding no opinion whatsoever on a subject in the absence of compelling evidence one way or the other. Consciousness apparently needs no explanation to go on being conscious; it doesn't bother me much.

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  18. Well I accept the current psychological / neuroscientific mechanistic view of the mind on prudential grounds: it gets results. I'm not betting on life after death either. I'd take it if I got it for sure, but given what I know now, secular humanism is the best approach.

    That being said, science has its own presuppositions. I hate to say it but I don't think it will ever be possible to know, absolutely, whether these presuppositions are correct.

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  19. “I” would interpret the “me” within this, so called, Consciousness as a contraction, or limitation, of “It” (consciousness). As a limitation it is therefore a false Self. It has mortal limits. This is not to say that unlimited feeling is not possible during the span of time “we” call “lifetime”. “I” would also regard the false Self Me as the creator of time itself. That bodily sensed contraction (or “Me”) is Time. Time spent waiting for some illusory future called “Happiness” (or time being a patient in a hospital waiting room of the universe in the hope of eventually getting “fixed” when, all the while, nothing was actully broken and life is far too fluid to ever be fixed. To be “fixed” would be to be fixated on Things). The physical “Contraction/Me” emoting toward the possibility of emotional happiness. But all emotions are that same limit as “emotions” are not feeling (if “we” are to consider “Feeling” as that “Being, or Feeling, One with everything). Any state of emotion is a limitation ON feeling. This is obvious due to emotion being felt only within a particular, and apparently seperate, body/brain called “Me” or “I”. And it is false because it is regarded as seperate and independent of all other objects including other body/brain objects (other “Me's”). In Reality (Consciousness without limit) there is no seperate/independent Other. So how do we get to experience an unlimited life?

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  20. We only think we have consciousness … it is merely part of our survival mechanism. As others have said before me in this stream of comments, consciousness is just an illusion.

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