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.

What is consciousness

Over the last couple of years, I’ve been thinking more and more about the nature of consciousness. My Zen meditation practice basically involves letting go of thoughts, letting go of the self, and simply experiencing consciousness without content. I have direct experiences from my meditation practice, as well as a reasonably wide reading of Zen and Buddhist masters and their experiences and understanding of consciousness, self and reality.  At times, I feel like I have had openings to experiences which have “enlightened” me about the nature of self, consciousness etc, but I have not really integrated these tastes of non-self into any sort of stable or mature understanding of reality.

I had read a few articles by philosophers who have explored the nature of consciousness, particularly the so-called hard problem of consciousness and last year read a review of a new book by Anil Seth which led me to think he had made advances from the neuroscience perspective.

Apart from my direct explorations through Zen meditation, breathwork and psychedelics, I also have worked with several Zen teachers and read extensively on consciousness in Buddhist literature and in the works of Ken Wilber, who has explored and mapped states and stages of consciousness in his writings. More recently, I read and reviewed Sam Harris’s book Waking Up, which also discusses the nature of consciousness and self.

So I decided I would read some of the key books and articles on consciousness from the philosophers and neuroscientists, to complement my experience and understanding gained from meditation and psychedelic explorations.

I bought the following books:

Anil Seth is a neurologist, Peter Godfrey-Smith a biologist and philosopher of science. Annaka Harris is a science writer (fun fact: also the wife of Sam Harris). Lewis-Williams and Pearce are both archaeologists. The final three are all philosophers. I guess the other relevant discipline I am missing is artificial intelligence research. I’ve read a little in this area and have found it mostly irrelevant to the issues relating to consciousness that I am interested in, and tedious reading to boot.

I browsed Chalmers book on consciousness and discovered the entire book ignores the entire knowledge base on states of consciousness, meditation, nondual states, etc. As if it’s irrelevant. So I quickly browsed the books by the other two philosophers, and the book by Anil Seth the neurologist. Not a single mention of meditation, altered states, psychedelics. I had bigger problems with Seth’s ideas, but will leave that to a separate review.

My initial reaction was to dismiss the philosophers as inhabiting a limited sterile corner of academia ignoring large parts of human experience. But then realized if I did that, I would be no better than them.

Ken Wilber has gone down this same path of integrating Western psychology and philosophy with Eastern first-person methods and understanding and has been largely ignored by academia and philosophers.  In part, because he does somewhat go over the top, and despite his focus on empirical methods, does seem to uncritically accept aspects of Tibetan Buddhism at more or less face value. Such as rebirth.

Sam Harris seems to get it more right. And his conclusions are very much aligned with mine. And even he gets dismissed by Western commentators as being arrogant. By telling them they cannot just critique from the outside, without trying the methods for themselves. So much for open-mindedness to all the relevant evidence.

For consciousness per se, which is a subjective experience, its clear that the objective methods of science are going to be at best marginally relevant. What is most relevant is the actual massive domain of experiences of consciousness. Particularly those focused not on the contents of consciousness (as the psychologists and neuroscientists like to do) but those focused on the exploration of consciousness per se when the contents are out of the way. The recent book by Anneka Harris is the only other one on my list above which examines what meditation tells us about consciousness.  And when I started reading it, I found it a superb discussion of the various issues and theories about consciousness.  So my next post will be a closer look at Harris’ book, and then I will dive into the philosophers.

Links to my later posts on consciousness are given below:

Anneka Harris on the fundamental mystery of consciousness Oct 6 2022

Consciousness Explained…..or Consciousness Ignored? Oct 16 2022

The Wide Sky

Let me not spend my life
lamenting the world’s sorrows
for above
in the wide sky
the moon shines pure

ukiyo to mo
tsuki no sumikeru
hisakata no sora

— Saigyo

I came across this poem quite by accident.  But it really struck home, as I’ve been spending too much time thinking about the state of the world right now. The human race appears to be quite incapable of working together to address the existential crises of the pandemic, global heating and species extinctions, and overpopulation, as well as the rejection of reason and science dramatically exacerbating these potentially soluble crises.  Humans have not reacted to these crises in general by pulling together, given that collective action can indeed address and ameliorate, if not completely address, them. But ratherhave retreated back into tribes who blame the “other” for all their problems. It is indeed difficult sometimes to remember the moon shining pure in the wide sky.

Saigyō was the Buddhist name of Fujiwara no Norikiyo (1118–1190), a Japanese Buddhist monk-poet. He is regarded as one of the greatest masters of the tanka (a traditional Japanese poetic form). He influenced many later Japanese poets, particularly the haiku master Basho.

Saigyo was born into a branch of the Fujiwara clan, the most powerful family in Japan in the early 12th century. As a young man he joined the Hokumen Guards who served at the retired Emperor’s palace. Despite a seemingly assured future, he decided at the age of 23 to “turn from the world” and become a reclusive wandering Buddhist monk. He spent the rest of his life in alternating periods of travel and seclusion with occasional periodic returns to the capital at Kyoto to participate in imperial ceremonies. During this period, the second half of the 12th century, Japan was wracked by civil war

The translation of the poem above is by Meredith McKinney, who has published a selection of over 100 poems by Saigyo in the collection Gazing at the Moon: Buddhist Poems of Solitude (September 2021). The poems selected focus on Saigyo’s story of Buddhist awakening, reclusion, seeking, enlightenment and death. I can highly recommend this collection, which embodies the Japanese aesthetic of mono no aware — to be moved by sorrow in witnessing the ephemeral world.

Meredith McKinney is an award-winning translator of classical and modern Japanese literature, who lived and taught for around 20 years in Japan. She returned to Australia in 1998 and now lives near the small town of Braidwood, not far from Canberra where I lived until early 2000. I was interested to learn a little more about her, and was surprised to find out that she is the daughter of Judith Wright (1915-2000), one of Australia’s greatest poets and an activist for the environment and indigenous rights. For the last three decades of her life, Wright lived near Braidwood. She became completely deaf in 1992 after progressively losing her hearing since early adulthood.

Reading Mary Beard on Rome and Hannah Arendt on totalitarianism

In recent weeks, I’ve been reading SPQR: a history of Rome by Mary Beard (2015) and simultaneously dipping into the classic The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt (1951). Hannah Arendt in much slower going and about halfway into SPQR I became so engrossed I just binge read to the end.

Mary Beard covers what she calls the first thousand years of Roman history from around 753 BCE, the traditional date of the founding of Rome by the mythical Romulus and Remus, through to 232 CE when the Emperor Caracalla made every single free inhabitant of the Roman Empire a full Roman citizen. Unlike many histories which focus on the so-called decline and fall of the Roman Empire during the following period through to around 476 CE, when the Gothic Odoacer deposed the last Emperor and declared himself King of Italy, Beard attempts to examine the question of how one tiny and unremarkable Italian village became so dominant a power over so much territory in three continents.

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Mary Beard covers what she calls the first thousand years of Roman history from around 753 BCE, the traditional date of the founding of Rome by the mythical Romulus and Remus, through to 232 CE when the Emperor Caracalla made every single free inhabitant of the Roman Empire a full Roman citizen. Unlike many histories which focus on the so-called decline and fall of the Roman Empire during the following period through to around 476 CE, when the Gothic Odoacer deposed the last Emperor and declared himself King of Italy, Beard attempts to examine the question of how one tiny and unremarkable Italian village became so dominant a power over so much territory in three continents.

Continue reading