Annaka Harris on the fundamental mystery of consciousness

In my previous post on consciousness, I noted that the 2019 book Conscious: a guide to the fundamental mystery of the mind, by Annaka Harris, was a superb discussion of the various issues, evidence and theories about consciousness. Of the seven books on consciousness I listed in the previous post, hers is the only one to take into account insights derived from meditation, use of psychedelics, and of altered states of consciousness more generally. It is also the only one to review, fairly honestly as far as I can tell, most of the major approaches to understanding and explaining consciousness and to discuss their pros and cons rather than making a partisan case for one approach.

Harris starts by explaining what she means by the word “consciousness”. She basically takes the philosopher Thomas Nagel’s definition in his famous essay “What is it like to be a Bat?” and posits that an organism is conscious if there is something that it is like to be that organism.  She says:

“Consciousness is experience itself , and it is therefore easy to miss the profound question staring us in the face in each moment : Why would any collection of matter in the universe be conscious ? We look right past the mystery as if the existence of consciousness were obvious or an inevitable result of complex life , but when we look more closely , we find that it is one of the strangest aspects of reality”

How does conscious experience arise out of non-sentient matter?  This is the problem that the Australian philosopher David Chalmers famously termed the “ hard problem ” of consciousness. Harris also points to a related question: at what point do the “lights turn on” for some collections of matter in the universe?  Presumably there is nothing that it is like to be a fertilized human egg cell, but at some point in the development of the foetus and its brain, experience apparently ignites.

In the second chapter Harris explores two related and important questions about consciousness:

  • In a system that we know has conscious experiences—the human brain—what evidence of consciousness can we detect from the outside?
  • Is consciousness essential to our behavior?

These questions lead Harris to the conclusion that (a) that both conscious and non-conscious states seem to be compatible with any behaviour and (b) that it may just be prejudice that makes us think that non-human living systems cannot be conscious. In the following Chapter she delves more deeply into the question of the extent to which consciousness plays a role in our behaviour.

She reviews experimental evidence which suggests that, at least for some types of behaviour and actions, the body-brain system has started the action before we are consciously aware of having to act. She concludes that our consciousness does not actually appear to be involved in much of our own behaviour, and this leads straight into the question of whether we have free will. The argument that conscious will is an illusion is further strengthened by the fact that the illusion of free will can be intentionally triggered and manipulated in experiments where there is not actually free will.

Harris then turns to the question of our experience of a “self” that is the subject of everything we experience. Is it possible to simply be aware of perceptions, feelings, thoughts etc without the sense of being a “self” who is aware of these things. Such an experience is not uncommon in meditation and in psychedelic experiences, and I can attest to this from personal experience, as can many other people.

In fact, research on brain functioning in people having psychedelic experiences has identified areas of the brain known as the default mode network which plays a key role in the sense of self. Researchers have found that during the psychedelic state there is significant deactivation of the default mode network, and this is strongly correlated with the experience of ego dissolution, or no-self.

Given that consciousness is the first-person experience of awareness, it seems obvious to me that first-person tools of investigation such as meditation and psychedelic experiences must be taken into account along with third-person observations of human functioning.

Harris then reviews “split-brain” studies, arguing that they shed light on both the concept of the self and on the malleability of consciousness. Split-brain experiments show that the part-brain without knowledge of the reason for a behaviour will invent a story to explain why the person is doing something. This suggests that maybe our sense of free will and decision making is a brain construct. Other experiments appear to show that each split brain has a separate centre of consciousness. There is not a single centre or “self”. Harris speculates that perhaps consciousness is not a “unitary” phenomenon but there may be flows of consciousness distributed across the brain and perhaps elsewhere in the body, and that these are “bound” into an apparent unitary “self” rather like disparate patchy sense inputs are bound into an apparent unitary experience.

Harris concludes that we can’t actually find reliable external evidence of consciousness, nor can we conclusively point to any specific function it serves. She raises the question of whether consciousness is “along for the ride” rather than playing a causal role in our functioning?

She then returns to the question of how and where to draw the line between conscious and non-conscious matter and suggests that perhaps consciousness is embedded in matter itself, as a fundamental property of the universe.  This is a form of panpsychism and in Chapter 6 she explores the arguments for and against this.

Like many scientists, I have tended to dismiss panpsychism as hugely implausible, and this was one aspect of Ken Wilber’s view of reality that I found impossible to accept. Harris lays out an argument that it should at least be considered and does offer simpler solutions to important questions about consciousness.  She finishes the chapter by saying:

“And, of course, the false conclusions drawn from a misunderstanding of panpsychism—that individual atoms, cells, or plants possess an experience comparable to that of a human mind, for instance—are often the very thing used to argue against it. Unfortunately, it seems quite hard for us to drop the intuition that consciousness equals complex thought. But if consciousness is in fact a more basic aspect of the universe than previously believed, that doesn’t suddenly give credence to your neighbor’s belief that she can communicate telepathically with her ficus tree. In actuality, if a version of panpsychism is correct, everything will still appear to us and behave exactly as it already does.”

I like Anneka Harris’ open-minded stance about these questions. Unlike many philosophers and neuroscientists who decide they know the answers and everyone else is wrong, Harris says:

My own sense of the correct resolution to the mystery of consciousness, whether or not we can ever achieve a true understanding, is still currently split between a brain-based explanation and a panpsychic one. But while I’m not convinced that panpsychism offers the correct answer, I am convinced that it is a valid category of possible solutions that cannot be as easily dismissed as many people seem to think. Unfortunately, it remains difficult for scientists to join the conversation without fear of jeopardizing their credibility.

She goes on later in the book to say:

Although I’m defending panpsychism as a legitimate category of theories about consciousness based on what we currently know, I am not closed to the possibility that we might discover, by some future scientific method, that consciousness does in fact exist only in brains. It’s hard for me to see how we could ever arrive at this understanding with any certainty, but I don’t rule it out. Nor am I discounting the possibility that consciousness is something we will never fully grasp.

In his article “Conscious Spoons, Really? Pushing Back against Panpsychism,” Anil Seth expresses a common view among neuroscientists that consciousness science has “moved on” from grappling with Chalmers’s “hard problem,” and thus from such “fringe” solutions as panpsychism. Unlike Anil Seth and Daniel Dennett (whose book I am reading now), Harris takes seriously the question of the nature of consciousness per se, the various hard problems, whereas they both duck these questions preferring to study the neural correlates of consciousness and the contents of consciousness.

In the final Chapter, Harris discusses how the mystery of consciousness is also intimately bound up with the mystery of time. That is something that has been very apparent to me from my experiences with meditation and grappling with the Buddhist understanding that the past and future do not exist here-now.  Is there nothing but the present moment, does consciousness “move” through time, is time movement an illusion?

If you are looking for an easy-to-read book which does an excellent job of examining the major questions, the evidence, and the pros and cons of various views on the nature of consciousness, I highly recommend Anneka Harris’s short book. It has certainly opened my mind to a wider range of possibilities, and a realization of how the mystery of consciousness is intimately bound up with the mysteries of time, of free will, and of the nature of reality.

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