Books on consciousness?

post by mgg · 2014-09-23T22:28:56.001Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 29 comments

Does LW have a consensus on which books are worthwhile to read regarding consciousness? I read a small intro (Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction, Susan Blackmore, Oxford University Press), and the summary seems to be "Consciousness is pretty damn weird and no one seems to have much of a handle on it". As a non-technical layman, are there any useful books for me to read on the subject?

(I have started reading Daniel Dennet's Intuition Pumps, and I'm a bit torn. He seems highly respected by good scientists, but I feel that if the book didn't have his name on it, I would be well on my way to dismissing it. Are Dennet's earlier works on consciousness a good read?)


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comment by lukeprog · 2014-09-23T23:17:35.651Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I have yet to read a book on consciousness that I was fairly happy with. At the moment I would recommend this review article over any particular book I've read.

Example books on consciousness I've read or skimmed: Consciousness Explained, The Ego Tunnel, Consciousness: VSI, Consciousness: An Introduction, Consciousness and the Brain.

Replies from: torekp, diegocaleiro
comment by torekp · 2014-09-26T01:11:13.217Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A nice part of the review article you mentioned:

Self-modeling occurs in a suitable virtual machine when the machine develops concepts for categorizing and labeling its own states as sensed by internal monitors. In this context, qualia are defined to be what virtual machines ‘‘refer to when referring to the objects of internal self observation’’ (Sloman & Chrisley, 2003).

And the referenced Molyneux paper's abstract

I show how a robot with what looks like a hard problem of consciousness might emerge from the earnest attempt to make a robot that is smart and self-reflective. This problem arises independently of any assumption to the effect that the robot is conscious, but deserves to be thought of as related to the human problem in virtue of the fact that (1) the problem is one the robot encounters when it tries to naturalistically reduce its own subjective states (2) it seems incredibly difficult from the robot’s own naturalist perspective and, most importantly, (3) it invites the robot to engage in the exact same metaphysical responses as humans offer to the problem of consciousness. Despite the fact that it invites the robot to consider extravagant metaphysical solutions, the problem I explore is purely algorithmic.

reminds me of the Jenann Ismael book I mentioned in my comment.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2014-09-24T16:03:43.050Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Anyone who's interested in consciousness should, IMO, know at least about Global Workspace Theory: a good summary can be found in these two short papers; here's a paper on how it might be implemented neuronally, though it's longer and more dense than the previous two.

comment by MarkL · 2014-09-24T03:37:36.281Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Not a book, but a blog post and a paper:

PRISMs, Gom Jabbars, and Consciousness

comment by sixes_and_sevens · 2014-09-23T23:20:07.079Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I was recommended Brainstorms by Dennett, which was slightly tricky to get hold of. It feels very worthy but I wouldn't call it riveting. I don't think Dennett does riveting, though I think he has his own sort of appeal, and did like the way Intuition Pumps was put together. I think Consciousness Explained is a more populist effort to, well, explain consciousness, though I haven't read it.

Susan Blackmore's also done Conversations on Consciousness, which is transcripts of interviews with notable academic figures on the subject, and is sitting in my to-read pile. She wrote The Meme Machine as well, which is more about memetics than consciousness, but does put forward some material on the topic, and is a quick read at <300 pages. As much as I want to like her, I personally find Susan Blackmore's writing a little annoying. YMMV.

Mind Hacks isn't about consciousness, but it's a very interesting CogSci book about how your brain pieces together the world in kludgey-messy ways, and how mental faculties we take for granted will fly apart at the seams if given the right corner-case. If you liked those aspects of the Consciousness VSI, you might like this.

Blindsight is an excellent hard sci-fi novel which you might want to consider reading if you like that sort of thing, and I'll say no more about it.

Replies from: None
comment by [deleted] · 2014-09-24T08:10:15.201Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Blindsight is an excellent hard sci-fi novel which you might want to consider reading if you like that sort of thing, and I'll say no more about it.

If you liked Blindsight's ideas, you should definitely try to read Being No One: The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity by Thomas Metzinger. Apparently Blindsight was heavily inspired by it. This is what the author has to say about it:

Let's get the biggies out of the way first. Metzinger's Being No One is the toughest book I've ever read (and there are still significant chunks of it I haven't), but it also contains some of the most mindblowing ideas I've encountered in fact or fiction. Most authors are shameless bait-and-switchers when it comes to the nature of consciousness. Pinker calls his book How the Mind Works, then admits on page one that "We don't understand how the mind works". Koch (the guy who coined the term "zombie agents") writes The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach, in which he sheepishly sidesteps the whole issue of why neural activity should result in any kind of subjective awareness whatsoever.

Towering above such pussies, Metzinger takes the bull by the balls. {Spoilers for Blindsight, use rot13}: Uvf "Jbeyq-mreb" ulcbgurfvf abg bayl rkcynvaf gur fhowrpgvir frafr bs frys, ohg nyfb jul fhpu na vyyhfbel svefg-crefba aneengbe jbhyq or na rzretrag cebcregl bs pregnva pbtavgvir flfgrzf va gur svefg cynpr. I have no idea whether he's right— the man's way beyond me— but at least he addressed the real question that keeps us staring at the ceiling at three a.m., long after the last roach is spent. Many of the syndromes and maladies dropped into Blindsight I first encountered in Metzinger's book. Any uncited claims or statements in this subsection probably hail from that source.

Replies from: sixes_and_sevens, mgg
comment by sixes_and_sevens · 2014-09-24T09:50:36.774Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Every time I've heard someone mention Being No One, it's been accompanied by some statement along the lines of "this book was above my level". This has certainly piqued my interest, but it hasn't instilled me with confidence about my ability to tackle it.

Replies from: Kaj_Sotala, JoshuaFox
comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2014-09-24T15:49:24.948Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've tried reading the book several times; I feel that the problem isn't so much that the content is intrinsically difficult, but rather that the style of writing is generally terrible. Paragraphs are spent on something that could have been expressed in a sentence, and every now and then one gets the feeling that the book is written using English vocabulary and German sentence structure. A good editor could have cut down the length by hundreds of pages without losing anything essential.

The content is great if you can work your way through it, but despite that, I've still never managed to work my way through the whole book.

comment by JoshuaFox · 2014-09-24T13:26:13.577Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Metzinger's The Ego Tunnel is the popular-audience version of Being No One.

Replies from: Kaj_Sotala
comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2014-09-24T15:51:25.442Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

My review of the Ego Tunnel:

Nice discussion of Metzinger's theory of consciousness. His basic claim is that what humans tend to think of as a "self" is what he calls a "phenomenal self-model" (PSM). As the name suggests, the PSM is the brain's model of the organism as a whole, and includes things such as a model of the organism's body. The PSM is situated within a broader world-model of the environment that the organism exists in. Metzinger claims that the reason why we experience there being thing such as "selves" is that there has been no evolutionary advantage in seeing the PSM as a model - we do not see the sophisticated computational machinery which produces it, and thus experience it as something self-contained and essential, rather as something that's constructed from parts for the sake of enabling better information-processing.

Metzinger's book discusses a number of experiments as well as details of what our conscious experience is like and what the reasons for that might be.

For example, humans perceive time as a kind of eternal present: everything we experience is experienced as happening "now", and even when we recall a memory of the past or think of the future, it is experienced as us remembering or planning something right now. But one could imagine a mind that didn't have any conception of an immediate privileged now. Metzinger doesn't go into detail of how this kind of a different mind would represent time, but personally I could speculate it as having just mental representations of events with different timestamps, with increasingly broad probability distributions on those events that had not yet been witnessed but which were extrapolated to happen, or of which sufficient time had passed that the memories might be becoming uncertain...

Metzinger suggests that the experience of a unified now emerges from the need to take quick action in response to threatening situations in the environment, and to provide all of the subsystems in the brain with a shared temporal frame of reference:

Although, strictly speaking, no such thing as Now exists in the outside world, it proved adaptive to organize the inner model of the world around such a Now - creating a common temporal frame of reference for all the mechanisms in the brain so that they can access the same information at the same time. A certain point in time had to be represented in a privileged manner in order to be flagged as reality.

Metzinger also suggests that this sense of a Now is part of what enables consciousness as we understand it: experiencing ourselves as being embedded in a constantly-developing Now is a fundamental part of human experience and consciousness.

The weakest part of the book is the last third, where the topic suddenly switches into that of ethics. The discussion in this section seems quite disconnected from that of the previous sections, and Metzinger starts talking about issues such as national drug policies and whether meditation should be taught in schools. A part of this discussion is justifiable as it touches upon the question of the effects that an increased understanding of consciousness research will have on society, but the whole discussion mostly comes off as superficial and not very well-argued. (Though I will admit that I started skimming this section pretty quickly.)

Nonetheless, overall Metzinger paints a very interesting picture of his theory of how the brain might work, though there's still a definite speculative vibe around it all.

comment by mgg · 2014-10-01T00:32:03.494Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well Blindsight impressed me enough, that I've started The Ego Tunnel. In short, the idea of unconscious intelligence bothered me. My intuition says that consciousness could be what happens when something tries to model its intelligence and actions, but of course that hardly explains anything. While I feel like it's unlikely I'll find many good answers, it is interesting enough to be enjoyable to read.

comment by NxGenSentience · 2014-09-26T01:34:42.266Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I love this question. As it happens, I wrote my honors thesis on the mind-body problem (while I was a philosophy and math double-major at UC Berkeley), and have been passionately interested in consciousness, brains (and also AI) ever since (a couple decades.)

I will try to be self-disciplined and remain as agnostic as I can – by not steering you only toward the people I think are more right (or “less wrong”.) Also, I will resist the tendency to write 10 thousand word answers to questions like this (which in any case would still barely scratch the surface of the body of material and spectrum of theory and informed opinion.)

I have skimmed the answers already given, and I think the ones I have read on this page are very good, and also, as intellectually honest and agnostic, as one would expect of the high caliber folks on this site.

Perhaps I should just give a somewhat meta-data answer to your question, and maybe I will add something specific later on, after I have a chance to look up some links and bookmarks I have in mind (which are distributed among several laptops, cloud drives, desktop machines, my smartphone and my Ipad, plus the stacks of research paper hardcopies I have all over my living space.)

The “meta-data”, or, strategic and supportive advice, would include the following.

1) Congratulations on your interest in the most fascinating, central, interdisciplinary, intellectually rich and fertile, and copiously addressed scientific, philosophical, and human nature question, of all. 2) Be aware that you are jumping into a very, very big intellectual ocean. You could fill a decent sized library with books and journals, or a terabyte hard drive with electronic copies of the same sources, and it is now more popular then ever in more disciplines than formerly would take up the question. (For example of the latter, hard-core neurologists – clinical and research – and bench-level working lab neurobiologists, are publishing routinely some amazing papers seeking to pin down, or theorize, or otherwise shed light on “the issue of consciousness.” 3) Give yourself a year (or 10) -- but it will be an enjoyable year (or 10) -- to read widely, think hard, and keep looking around at new theories, authors, papers. I think it is fair to say that no one has “the answer” yet, but there are excellent and amazingly imaginative proposed answers, and some of them are likely to be significantly close to being at least on the right track. After a year or more, you will begin to develop a sense of the kinds of answer that have more or less merit, as your intuitions will sharpen, and you build up new layers of understanding. 4) Be intellectually "mobile." Look everywhere… Amazon, the journals, PubMed, the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (just Google them, they have great summaries) and various cognitive science sub collections.

The good news is nearly everything you need to conduct any level of research, is online for free -- in case you don’t have a fortune to spend on books.

Lastly, as it happens, something for down the road a couple months, I am in the process of setting up a couple of YouTube channels, which will have mini-courses of lectures on certain special application areas, like AI, as well as general introductions to the mind-body problem, and its different guises. It will take me a couple months to go live with the videos, but they should be helpful as well. I intend to have something for all levels of expertise. But that is in the future. (Not a commercial announcement at all... it will be a free and open presentation of ideas -- a vlog, but done a bit more rigorously.)

It is my view that most introductory and some sophisticated aspects of the “mind-body problem” -- at least: why there is one and what forms it takes and which different, unavoidable lines of thought land us there -- can be explained by a good tutor, to any intelligent layperson. (I think there is room to improve on the job of posing the problem and explaining its ins and outs, over ways it is done by many philosophy and cognitive science instructors, which is why I will be creating the video sequences.)

But, in general, you are in for quite an adventure. Keep reading, keep Googling. The resources available are almost boundless, and growing rapidly.

We are in the best time so far, in all of human history, for someone to be interested in this question. And it touches on almost every branch of human knowledge or thought, in some way… from ethics, to interpretations of quantum mechanics.

Maybe you, or one of us in here, will be the “clerk working in a patent office” that connects the right combination of puzzle pieces, and adds a crucial insight, that dramatically advances our understanding of consciousness, in a definitive way.

Enjoy the voyage…

Replies from: mgg
comment by mgg · 2014-10-01T00:35:42.049Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That sort of confirms my suspicion - that it's a very active topic. And it's not necessarily easy to break into. I was hoping there was a good pop-sci summary book that laid things out real nicely. Like what The Selfish Gene does for evolution. But I read the book Blindsight, and am now reading Metzinger's The Ego Tunnel, just because it seemed incredibly interesting. So who knows how deep this will go for me :)

comment by Faustus2 · 2014-09-24T11:21:51.668Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I recommend 'neurophilosophy' by Patricia Churchland, but a really good general overview for theories on consciousness is the Blackwells companion to consciousness. Sorry for the long HTML, but there is a link for a pdf version here that might be of use to you (or anyone):émentaire/1405120193%20-%20Max%20Velmans%20-%20The%20Blackwell%20Companion%20to%20Consciousness%20%5B2007%5D.pdf

comment by Pablo (Pablo_Stafforini) · 2014-09-24T04:35:22.546Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

David Chalmers' The Conscious Mind is excellent, and no, you don't have to agree with its conclusions to agree with that characterization. If you lack the time to read an entire book, try Consciousness and its place in nature instead.

Few philosophers are worth reading; Chalmers is definitely one of them.

Replies from: summerstay, mgg
comment by summerstay · 2014-09-24T16:22:48.377Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There's a reason everyone started calling it "the hard problem." Chalmers explained the problem so clearly that we now basically just point and say "that thing Chalmers was talking about."

comment by mgg · 2014-09-24T09:21:43.451Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Isn't that the same guy that takes pzombies seriously? I find it hard to imagine someone with such a basic misunderstanding would be capable of handling consciousness.

Replies from: pragmatist
comment by pragmatist · 2014-09-24T20:02:38.510Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you genuinely find this hard to imagine, I recommend that you read the book. I suspect you are in for a big update if you do. Despite being ultimately wrong (in my opinion), Chalmers' treatment of consciousness is the most sophisticated and careful that I have seen.

He is aware of all the obvious (and many of the non-obvious) criticisms of the whole zombie thing, and addresses them in the book.

Even if you end up disagreeing with his conclusions (as you probably will), I'm fairly sure the book will significantly reconfigure how you think about the problem.

Replies from: mgg
comment by mgg · 2014-09-24T20:30:06.560Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

OK, given the strong reaction to my comment I will check it out. I'd love to be in for a big update, but the whole zombie thing is so generally perplexing how anyone can take that seriously without being outright dualistic that it'll really be a huge update for me.

Replies from: pragmatist
comment by pragmatist · 2014-09-25T12:34:14.199Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well, Chalmers is outright dualistic, so that's not the update I was talking about. What I think you will find unexpected is that someone who identifies as a dualist can still have a deeply intelligent take on consciousness that is both scientifically-minded and fully cognizant of the standard physicalist arguments.

Replies from: mgg
comment by mgg · 2014-09-26T17:18:33.379Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Alright. I've read the first few page or so of the first link "Consciousness and its Place in Nature", and it seems to boil down to "We can think of zombies without our current minds seeing any major issue (a priori!), therefore consciousness isn't physical."

comment by Algernoq · 2014-09-24T02:17:02.882Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Definitely Godel, Escher, Bach if you haven't already.

Consciousness is pretty damn weird and no one seems to have much of a handle on it

That sums up the current state of knowledge. What does it mean to be an "observer"?

I assume by "consciousness" you mean the hard problem of consciousness, i.e. why do I have subjective awareness at all. The "easy" problem, how other people's brains cause them to do stuff, is fairly well-covered by standard neuroscience texts.

Replies from: mgg, Nornagest, Fivehundred
comment by mgg · 2014-09-24T20:34:40.633Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That sums up the current state of knowledge

Which was sort of my question: Do I have a whole lot to gain by reading the current information available? Will I obtain valuable insights on things, or even be rather entertained? Or am I just gonna end up in the same place, but with a deeper respect for how difficult it is to figure things out?

Replies from: sixes_and_sevens
comment by sixes_and_sevens · 2014-09-24T21:44:48.110Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It looks like I'm maybe half a dozen books further down the consciousness reading list than you are. I am beginning to suspect that consciousness is a fruitlessly interesting subject. It's hard to think about, and it appeals directly to our personal experience, but reading about it doesn't imbue you with fantastic mental powers.

I think a rough background in theories of consciousness, free will, personal identity, etc. are useful for reasoning about related thorny subjects, such as political or legal philosophy. Also a lot of the orbital cognitive science forms a useful set of case studies for how your brain can go wrong, which is incidentally useful when reasoning about cognitive biases and the like. But you're probably right in thinking that reading all the available material is a lot of work to cover very little distance.

comment by Nornagest · 2014-09-24T20:57:29.786Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you're going to do Hofstadter on consciousness, I Am A Strange Loop is a little more on-point than GEB. GEB is quite good, but most of its pagecount is devoted to an extended exploration of formal grammars and self-reference more generally, which is relevant but mainly as background.

comment by Fivehundred · 2014-09-24T02:52:13.166Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm scared to try GEB. I can barely do long division these days. :P

Replies from: Algernoq
comment by Algernoq · 2014-09-24T03:24:26.601Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In that case, just read the dialogues (every other chapter) -- they're funny, easy to read, and pretty cool. The other parts are kind of dry, and all the good ideas are in the dialogues anyway. Long division is not required, and it's probably easier than the philosophy recommendations you'll get.

I'm scared to try GEB.

Look, do what you enjoy, and don't bother with what you don't enjoy. That's what worthwhile people want to see. People like real people and are creeped out by superheroes. It's ok.

Everyone: I am ignorant of many things! In fact, often I'm downright stupid! I have several harmful habits, including unhealthy and socially off-putting ones! I once got a D in a math class! Sometimes I lack self-awareness! I'm too old to be a mathematician!

Be real. Be open. Good luck.

comment by torekp · 2014-09-25T21:43:21.795Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I recommend Jenann Ismael's The Situated Self for philosophy. Some parts are hard to follow until you get to the examples, and then it's well worth the effort. (Note to writers: to explain complex concepts, lead with the examples.) The book isn't entirely about consciousness, nor does it attempt to build a comprehensive philosophy of mind. It just tackles the hardest knot, and unravels it.

and Metzinger (I read The Ego Tunnel) for neurology/cognitive science

Another good philosophy book, easy to read, is Owen Flanagan's Consciousness Reconsidered