Combine a Zen master and a psychologist interested in neuroscience. Bingo! You've created Susan Blackmore, or someone very much like her.
I've finished reading her Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction. I'm fascinated by consciousness, because it's what I am. All I am, really, since whatever I'm not conscious of doesn't exist for me.
So whatever consciousness is, or isn't, seemingly would tell me a lot about who I am, or aren't. I used to believe in supernatural notions of consciousness, but now I'm much more interested in scientific theories.
After all, I'm a body with a brain. Or a brain with a body. My consciousness isn't something other-worldly; like everybody else's, it is part and parcel of neurological functioning.
(If you're mystically inclined and don't agree, try some experiments: have someone knock you out with a baseball bat, or more gently lose awareness through anesthesia. This will show that the physical brain controls what some people mistakenly consider to be non-material consciousness, often called "soul.")
That much is obvious. What isn't clear, though, is what consciousness is, why we have it, how it is experienced, and other questions that bridge philosophy and science.
Blackmore doesn't have firm answers to the Big Questions of Consciousness. However, she has a basic stance that fits with her interest in Zen: human conscious experience is an illusion. Or, delusion.
This paper of hers, "There is No Stream of Consciousness," is pretty dense and academic. Her overview, though, is fairly simple.
What is all this? What is all this stuff around me; this stream of experiences that I seem to be having all the time?
Throughout history there have been people who say it is all illusion. I think they may be right.
...We must be clear what is meant by the word 'illusion'. An illusion is not something that does not exist, like a phantom or phlogiston. Rather, it is something that it is not what it appears to be, like a visual illusion or a mirage.
When I say that consciousness is an illusion I do not mean that consciousness does not exist. I mean that consciousness is not what it appears to be. If it seems to be a continuous stream of rich and detailed experiences, happening one after the other to a conscious person, this is the illusion.
I wish I could clearly explain what Blackmore means by this. I can't. I've read the final pages of her short book several times. That section, The Future of Consciousness, echoes what she says in her longer academic paper.
So the rest of this post is less an explanation, than a pointing to what I find fascinating about Blackmore's theorizing, which remains a mystery to me -- perhaps because I'm as firmly immersed in the illusion of what it means to be "me" as everyone else is.
First, Blackmore says that we have to throw out this idea:
...that the "you" who is now conscious of reading this book is the same one who went to bed last night and woke up this morning.
OK, I kind of get this notion. It's firmly Buddhist. Also, neuroscientific.
There's no self inside my head who is separate and distinct from all the going-on inside the brain. (I almost said "my brain," but this would imply that there's a "me" apart from the brain.)
The next throwing out is tougher to understand, so I'll quote it in its entirety.
The second assumption is that experiences flow through the conscious mind as a stream of ideas, feelings, images, and perceptions. The stream may break, change direction, or be disrupted, but it remains a series of conscious events in the theatre of the mind.
The bottom line here is that if you ask "what is in Jim's consciousness now?", there must be a correct answer, because some of Jim's thoughts and perceptions are in the conscious stream while the rest are not. This has to be thrown out.
Mind-blowing, in much the same way Zen koans are. If you answer one way, you get a dozen hits with a stick from the Zen master. If you answer the other way, same thing happens.
Blackmore says that the grand delusion of consciousness comes about because we humans can ask ourselves, "Am I conscious now?" Because we always get a "yes" answer, we assume that we're always conscious in each waking moment.
However, we also see that the refrigerator light is on every time we open the door. If we try to open the door very quickly to catch the light being off, we can't. It always is on... so far as we know. But in reality, it isn't.
When I had a colonoscopy a few years ago, I was warned that the anesthesia could have some side effects -- like forgetting things after the procedure was over. I went home and felt fine. In a few hours I was attending to my normal "to-do's."
Later in the week I phoned to request a vegetarian meal at a luncheon meeting. The woman who answered said, "You've already done that. You called a few days ago."
I came home from the colonoscopy, seemingly fully conscious and aware. But there was at least one blank spot in that so-called "stream of consciousness." I'd dialed the phone and told this woman that I wanted a vegetarian meal -- without any awareness afterward that I'd done this.
So how do I know that I was conscious of doing it at the time? I don't. This is a personal experience, or lack thereof, that appears to point in the direction of what Blackmore is speaking of when she says:
The truth is that when we are not asking the question ["Am I conscious now?"], there are no contents of consciousness and no one to experience them. Instead, the brain carries on, doing multiple things in parallel -- as in Dennett's multiple drafts theory -- and none of them is either in consciousness or out of it.
Indeed, the whole idea of brain activity being conscious or unconscious can be dropped, and with it the problem of the "magic difference" between them.
Consciousness, then, is a grand delusion. It arises through asking such questions as "Am I conscious now?" or "What am I conscious of now?" In that moment of questioning, an answer is concocted: a now, a stream of experiences, and a self who observes it all appear together, and a moment later they are gone.
Next time you ask, a new self and a new world are concocted, backwards from memory. If you go on to believe that you always were conscious, and construct metaphors about streams and theatres, then you only dig yourself deeper and deeper into confusion.
I can believe that.
This might well be the basic human condition: having become not only aware, like my dog is, we're also self-aware -- which means that we can ask questions which have no answers and create existential problems which can't be resolved.
Because they are founded on unreality, on illusion, on delusion.
Blackmore holds out hope, in line with her Zen interest, that its possible for people to "drop the illusions and experience the world without them." Hey, me too.
Those who practice certain kinds of meditation or mindfulness claim that we can. They say that the ordinary world falls apart and there are just experiences with no one experiencing them.
...Indeed, there are already some scientists who practice this way, and practitioners who study the science.
This holds out the hope that science and personal practice might eventually come together to let us see clearly -- dropping the delusions, penetrating the illusions of self and other, and leaving us with one world -- no duality, and no one asking the question.