Steve Paulson: Why is consciousness such a profound and challenging subject to understand?
Susan Blackmore: Oh, fundamentally because of the mind-body problem. If you think about it, I have now got my hands on a sort of furry table, I suppose it sort of absorbs sound or something, and I can feel this texture and I can see this gray, dull color of it. Now, that feeling to me, that impression, the roughness against my fingers, this is a mental thing. It’s how it is to me. It’s not something that I can share with anybody else. It’s ephemeral. It’s hard to describe. That’s what we mean by something mental. Or philosophers would say “these are qualia.”On theother hand, you know, we’ve got physical things that we can examine. We can look at my brain and we can see all the neurons, if we put me in a scanner. We can see all the neurons doing stuff and somehow we know that these feelings and impressions and perceptions are caused by this brain. But how? They seem such different kinds of things, you know, mental things and physical things. Or mind and body. Or the view from within or the public view from without. Subjectivity versus objectivity. And there’s what is often referred to as the explanatory gap between subjective things and objective things.
Paulson: Right. So how can matter become something that’s immaterial?
Paulson: That’s the great paradox, right?
Blackmore: Exactly. And people have struggled with this for thousands of years. I mean, famously Descartes in the 17th century came up with Cartesian Dualism to try and solve it, and that doesn’t work. And people have tried all kinds of monist solutions and nobody’s really got a convincing one. And, you know, it’s just very, very difficult, which is why for most of the 20th century we had Behaviorism which said, “we’re not even going to think about it because it’s too difficult and it’s unscientific and that’s not possible.”Thank goodness now we’re saying, “yeah, but we’ve gotto make it scientific,”but it’s very, very difficult.
Paulson: So the holy grail for a lot of scientists who have now undertaken this extremely difficult project of trying to understand consciousness is to figure out what it is in the brain, I mean, how the stuff in the brain can generate mental experiences. Do you see that as the overarching question here?
Blackmore: No, in the sense that you’ve used the word “generate.” It’s a really difficult to put the problem without tripping over words like that. But if you say that the brain generates subjective things, then you’re almost Dualist from the start because you were imaging that subjective experiences are somehow different from, or something that’s created by. Now, that may be so but I suspect it isn’t. I suspect that what’s going is that in some way that’s very hard to grasp we are tricked into thinking of subjective and objective as different. We can’t see the way in which they’re the same, so we actually create a problem that isn’t really there. I mean, this is called the hard problem. Dave Chalmers in the mid-90’s coined this phrase, the hard problem, which has stuck. And the hard problem is the question of how objective brain processes can give rise to subjective experience. And he used the words “give rise to,”which ismuch like your word “generate.”And many philosophers and also myself,although I’m not a philosopher, would say, “that problem is insoluble. It must be that we’ve got our concepts wrong right from the start if we end up with a problem like that.”
Paulson: But I think virtually every neuroscientist would say that the brain does generate consciousness.
Blackmore: They would, they would.
Paulson: There’s something that, I mean, the physical mechanics of the brain. The way the neurons fire or the way the synapses work, that is what generates consciousness.
Blackmore: Yes. I’m in the Dan Dennett camp. I’m what he used to call the A-team. That’s very unkind of him. The B-team believed there is a hard problem and the A-team say there isn’t a hard problem. Now, I’m not saying the brain isn’t doing all that stuff and I’m not saying all that stuff isn’t essential for us to be conscious, but actually what I’m saying is something like this. What we think of as being conscious is, we’re already deluded. We’re so deluded about the nature of our own minds that we think of mental things as something that has to be generated by the brain. In fact, what we need to do is somehow penetrate through this illusion of self-and-other, you know, that I am here having a stream of experiences and those experiences are constructed by my brain, and somehow see that the brain is doing something different. I’m not sure what, but it’s not generating something called consciousness.
Paulson: In your book, Zen and the Art of Consciousness, you have said that we need a revolution in the way we understand consciousness. This is what you’re talking about? We need to reconfigure this entire problem?
Blackmore: Yes. I’m mean, I’m not alone in saying this. There are plenty of people who think we need to reconfigure the problem. But what happened in my own case, really, is I’ve been struggling with the problem of consciousness. I started teaching a consciousness course back in 1989, I think, and then in 1991, Dan Dennett’s wonderful book Consciousness Explained came out. And lots of people hate it and they call it “Consciousness Explained Away”and so on. But he made some absolutely critical points in there about the delusions that we fall into. The way we think of ourselves as sitting inside a Cartesian theater and looking out through our eyes, and that itself is a construction. And we can’t get away from that. And the neuroscientists fall into it again and again and again. And he calls them Cartesian materialists: they say they’re materialists, but actually they’re kind of dualists because they imagine this sort of mental screen on which the images appear and a kind of finishing point, the sort of idea that most neuroscientists seem to have where most of the things going on in the brain are unconsciousness processes and just some of them get into consciousness. And what he does in that book is just demolish that whole idea and show why that is implausible or just doesn’t really make sense. So, from then onwards I’ve struggled even more to try to understand it. And then, more recently, I was practicing Zen, I’ve been practicing Zen now for more than thirty years, and over the years, my Zen practice began to come together, really, with my intellectual struggles. And it seems to me now that by doing deep meditation and asking difficult questions about consciousness within meditation, one can begin to change in such a way that there doesn’t seem any longer to be this separation between self and other or mental and physical.
Paulson: You’ll have to explain this. Something about the process of Zen meditation itself led you to these insights?
Blackmore: Yes, yes. I think so. I mean, it’s interesting that from the Zen point of view and indeed from the point of view of some other forms of Buddhism and Vedanta Advaita and other mystical traditions throughout the ages there are many examples of non-duality, of non-dualism of various kinds. So all of those traditions will say, “ultimately, all is one.”Or, “youare not separate from the universe; you are the universe.”And, you know,all this sounds pretty mystical and weird, doesn’t it?
Paulson: I mean, that’s easy to say too if you were just focusing on your conscious experience. If you don’t actually care what science, for instance, says about the brain, sure. That sounds fine. But if you actually want to reconcile the insights of science with that deep understanding of the mind that comes with meditation, it would seem to be still very problematic.
Blackmore: It’s extremely problematic, but let me give you an example of the way that I think the meditation has helped me to think about it. Now, this might be a blind alley but the problem is so difficult that let, let plenty of things be tried. So when I was teaching my consciousness courses, I used to get my students to really look into their unconsciousness. And the way I did that is that every week I gave them a question and they’re supposed to ask this question as many times as they could every way. It’s amazing how difficult it is to do. You just forget. You don’t want to do it. There’s just something in your brain that doesn’t want to try, but anyway, the first question was “am I conscious now?”Now a veryinteresting happens. Are you conscious now?
Paulson: I think I am.
Blackmore: Good, but we’ll come back to that. Very often if you just go up to somebody, which I tend to do, and just poke them and go “hey, are you conscious now?”And they go, “well, yes” and get this very strangefeeling that something has changed because I asked the question. And you can do it to yourself. And you suddenly think it’s almost a bit like waking up, almost a bit like you’ve become conscious because you asked the question. Now, that’s a clue to think “well, what was happening just before?”And it’s an oddity, one of many, many oddities aboutconsciousness, that whenever I ask the question “am I conscious now?”Ialways am. But what about when I’m not asking the question? It’s a bit like little kids who say “are you asleep?” And you know, up to a certain age they’ll go, “Yes.”
Paulson: Well, I mean, another way to phrase this might be “are you truly aware, right now, of what’s going on?”You know, “are you truly in themoment?”I mean, it sounds like that’s kind of what you’re, when youtalk about “are you conscious,”that’s sort of what you mean,right?
Blackmore: Exactly. And so you could say, from that point of view, it’s very much like mindfulness. Are you mindful at the moment? Are you here, fully in the present, with what’s going on? So you could say it’s a question. You could say it’s a reminder to become mindful. But my point is that something happens when you ask that question that led me to then ask my students and myself the second question, which was “were you conscious a moment ago?”And then people are not sure because they havethis funny feeling that something had changed or they’d become more conscious. And they’d think, “well, I must have been. Of course, I must have been conscious all day, but there’s something odd there.”So my next question,then, was: “what was I conscious of a moment ago?”And I found thisquestion absolutely fascinating and I’ve worked on it, I mean, typically I’ve done several times, when I’d do a retreat when I’m meditating six or seven hours a day in half-hour sessions with little breaks in between. And once I’ve done an hour or two, I’d get a really calm, still mind. Then kind of let the question, “what was I conscious of a moment ago?”And whatI’ve found is that almost always, there are lots and lots of things that I could say I might have been conscious of a moment ago. I can do it now. I can sort of think back. It’s really weird. I’ve just remembered I just scratched my leg and I would not have remembered that if I hadn’t been asking myself this, but obviously there’s more obvious things like the sound of the humming of the air conditioning. And, I know I’ve sort of been noticing visually my hands because I’m waving my hands like anything as I’m talking. But the weird thing is, I can sort of track back these things and they feel as though I was conscious of them. But each didn’t have anything to do with the other. The waving of the hands wasn’t, you know, in any way connected unlike now, when I’m going, “what am I conscious of now? The whole room, the whole feeling.”But then there were thesedisparate, separate things. Now the critical thing here is, I don’t really know whether I was conscious of them or not. Were there sort of five or six or ten “me’s,”one for each of these parallel streams, parallel backward threads? Or was I divided up? Or are none of them me? Well if I can’t answer the question, then nobody can. Because the whole point about consciousness is it’s subjective and therefore it’s up to me to say. Now, you may think this is all just waving words and maybe it is. But the implication seems to me to be this: when I ask myself, “am I conscious now?”, I can tell you what I’m conscious of and it leads me to believethat there some things going on in my brain that I am conscious of and some I’m not. But the true situation, 99% of the time, unless I’m kind of enlightened all the time, the true situation for nearly everybody, nearly all the time is they are not asking that question. There are lots and lots of parallel processes going on in the brain which we can look at in scanners, and we know they’re going on. And none of them is conscious or unconscious. Consciousness is simply an attribution that we make, after the fact, with our language and it’s only because we make that attribution after the fact that we get into this whole, ridiculous thing about the hard problem and believing that we’re going to find the neural correlates of consciousness and that some brain processes are conscious and others aren’t.
Paulson: But aren’t there some distinctions between what we do unconsciously and what we do consciously? I mean, some things that we just do kind of automatically and other things that we are aware of as we do them, I mean, isn’t that a real distinction?
Blackmore: Well, it’s a real distinction in one sense but I think we misdescribe it. I think the way that many neuroscientists go is to think, “we are going to find the neural correlates of consciousness.” That is, something special about some neurons or some processes or some areas of the brain or whatever that makes these ones to be conscious and these not. I would say we need to reconstrue that whole thing. When I say I’m doing something on automatic, it’s probably because there’s a split in the processing going on in the brain. For example, let’s take the automatic driving. You know, the unconscious driving phenomenon where you drive somewhere and then you think, “ah, how did I get here?”What’shappening there is a very skilled brain that is very used to driving and knows the route very well is getting on with its clever stuff while another bit of the brain is listening to the radio or thinking about something completely different, you know. And they don’t have anything to do with each other. So from the point of view of one it feels as though the other was unconscious, but that’s only from that point of view. And that point of view is a verbal thing saying, “this is me and I was conscious of this” and making attributions after the fact. So there is a truth to a difference between what we call “doing something on automatic pilot”or doing itconsciously, but that difference is not to be understood in terms of something called consciousness that applies to one and not the other. It’s to be understood in the way integration is or is not happening in a very complex brain with multiple, multiple parallel processes all going on at once.
Paulson: Are you saying we should get rid of the word consciousness? That it just creates all kinds of problems, it sort of obfuscates rather than explains anything?
Blackmore: Well, that would be a way to go if it weren’t that Behaviorism was so disastrous in doing that. The tendency then is to kind of wash all these problems away so no, I don’t want to do that. No, I want to say how it feels to be me, sitting here now, is a real mystery. I’m not saying there isn’t a mystery. I’m just saying that the way we describe it as the hard problem is not the way to get at the mystery. I’m trying to rethink things from the bottom up, to describe the mystery in a better way, and I don’t think I’ve succeeded really in doing that. I only think I’ve succeeded in pulling apart some of the assumptions we make and saying, “that’s the way I want to go”, is to go right, right back deeper andnot pursue this neural correlates of consciousness thing. But I’m delighted that loads of neuroscientists are doing because even though I don’t believe they will find the magic of consciousness in some particular process or some particular level of the visual system or whatever, I think they are finding out so much about how the brain works that it’s going to be really useful when we come, in my opinion, one day to think about consciousness in a completely different way.
Paulson: But it sounds like you’re saying that to understand consciousness, you don’t actually have to know that much about the latest brain science. You don’t have to know of sort of the fine points of how the brain works. I mean, those are interesting questions but that doesn’t answer this fundamental question of what consciousness is.
Blackmore: No, no, no. To the contrary, no. I just think we need to look at something different. I think we need to look at how, what is happening in a brain when somebody becomes mindful as opposed to when they’re not mindful. What is happening in a brain when they ask themselves, “am I conscious now?”, and reflect on things as opposed to when they’re not doing so?Can we see, what I would predict is a certain kind of integration between language systems and certain other things, but I don’t know where they will be and we’ll find out. So from that point of view a lot of the research going on into meditation and mindfulness is potentially going to give answers of that kind, which I think go deeper than just correlations between different bits of the brain firing when people are, claim to be in different meditation states. I think we do, well, it depends what you want to do, but I really do want to know about the details about brain function.
Paulson: I want to take you back to your Zen practice. And one thing that I find curious is when I was reading how you describe this, you say you are actually not a Buddhist yourself. You practice Zen but you don’t call yourself a Buddhist. Why did Zen hit home for you so profoundly?
Blackmore: Well, go back to the 1970s and imagine me in the end of the hippy era in all of my flowing skirts and my “Far Out Man”andlistening to Grateful Dead and Pink Floyd and taking interesting drugs and all of that stuff. And I had an extraordinary out-of-the-body experience and I was really obsessed with trying to understand the mind. I was studying Physiology and Psychology at Oxford and that wasn’t giving me, I mean, it was wonderful and I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t giving me answers on those kinds of things. And I went searching and I trained as a witch and I learned to read tarot cards. I did all kinds of stuff. And I became a parapsychologist and looked for paranormal phenomena and never found any. And one of the things in that whole mish-mash of stuff was that I came across a Zen group and started practicing meditation and all the other things gradually fell by the wayside through my research as well as through my ordinary life. And the Zen practice was the only thing that survived and I found it enormously helpful, not just in the kind of intellectual way we’re talking about now but in the whole way of living my life. I had an extremely good Zen teacher called John Crooke who was a western Psychologist in Bristol and that suited me an awful lot better than a sort of guru from the east or something. Now John himself says, “you shouldn’t say you’re not a Buddhist. It doesn’t mean anything.”But the reason that I insist on that and put it, like, bigon my website is that because Buddhism comes up with a lot of dogma like any religion and I am not prepared to go along with any dogma. And there are some Buddhists who think that it is quite illegitimate of me to practice the way that I do, to use their techniques, to go and sit with teachers,
Paulson: Because you are not a card-carrying Buddhist.
Blackmore: Exactly. But the really important thing for me is that when I write about Zen and about meditation and about what I have found, I want people to be clear that I am not saying this is what the Buddha said or this is what Buddhism says. I’m saying this is what I think I found through practice that I’ve been helped through Zen to learn.
Paulson: Now you also say that, going back to your first extended Zen retreat, I mean, where you sat for hours and hours meditating, that being in the present moment was terrifying.
Blackmore: Yes. I said a while ago about when I got my students to ask themselves questions hundreds of times a day and there’s a huge resistance to that. It’s the same resistance there is to meditation. It is really hard in the beginning. It’s easy now, well, easier now, but to sit down and just allow the mind to do it’s stuff because you see the most awful things. I mean, that’s the beginning of meditation practice. The first retreat I ever went on, which was five days and many, many hours every day meditating, I saw horrific things. The wall would turn into scenes of torture or rape or, you know, awful things like that; or, I’d just suddenly remember something awful that I’d done and feel mortified and wish I could change it, or something that someone’s done to me and I’d feel so angry. And in meditation you have to sit there, well, the kind of meditation I do, you have to learn to sit with all this stuff and let it be. A lot of it is about letting go and not engaging with stuff, not pushing it away. Just letting it be. And you get to know yourself and you get to find out a lot of other things too, just by sitting with it.
Paulson: It would seem that there’s a basic tension in what you’ve been talking about here. Now we’ve already talked about one dichotomy, which is mind and brain, subjective experience and what science can tell us, but also there is experience itself. For instance, what happens when you’re meditating versus the kind of intellectual analysis that scientists do.
Paulson: And presumably you need both to come to some understanding about, for instance, the nature of consciousness, and yet they would seem to be two entirely different kinds of things.
Blackmore: Yes, exactly. You’ve put it exactly better than I could, really. That’s exactly what I think. We do need both but at the moment we haven’t yet really found ways for each to inform the other. But it is coming. There are a lot more scientists investigating meditation. There are a lot more deep-trained, long-term mediators putting themselves forward to be involved in science and I think that all this is very encouraging.
Paulson: So how much do you meditate these days?
Blackmore: Not a lot, but every day. Most days, well, every day I will sit with my husband, if we’re both at home, for 15 minutes in the morning. Sometimes I might do half-an-hour. Sometimes. Weekends, for example, or if he’s away, I tend to do more. I go sometimes to, we have a local afternoon sometimes on weekends that I go to. And I go on retreats once or twice a year where I’ll go for a week and do a lot more. Sometimes I have solitary retreats for a few days. Either I go up into the Welsh mountains to the Zen place where there’s an old farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. Wonderful place. Or sometimes I’ve just done solitary retreats in my own garden shed, which I kind of turn into a little meditation hut and sit there. So, you know, it varies a lot but the basis is just that 15 minutes every morning. And I’m sure there are people out there listening, thinking, “yeah, but you should be doing half-an-hour morning and evening.”Well, sorry butI’ve got a very complex, busy life and my advice to anybody would be take on something that you can manage. Because if you do even a little bit every day for years and years and years, I think that has a lot better effect than trying to do too much and failing.
Paulson: So coming back to the question of consciousness, the study of consciousness. What do we still need to learn to figure it out? To crack the nut of consciousness? What is the holy grail here?
Blackmore: I don’t know. I think if we knew that we’d be a great deal further forward. But I would like to mention some things that I think are important here that are part of the delusions. One is self and the other is free-will or agency. You see, I think we just naturally, we know this from developmental psychology and all kinds of other kinds of science going on, we know quite a lot now about how children begin to have a sense of self and what happens and why they think of self as separate from other and all that sort of thing. But that is fundamental because when we think about consciousness, it is “I am conscious”or “that person over there isconscious.”And yet, is it the whole body that’s conscious? Well, no, because we can say, “well that’s my finger over there. You know, I’m in here looking over there.”Now this sense of, “I’m inside my headlooking through my eyes at my fingers now,”you know, what is this? It’s clear some kind of a construction, a brain construction. So there’s lots and lots of work going on, both philosophical and neuroscience, in terms of how we construct the sense of self. And I think that’s one way we get into this, what I would say, delusion of thinking of consciousness as something that I have and a stream-of-consciousness that I am experiencing. So that’s one side of where we need to go. The other is the fascinating question about free-will because if you believe that you are some kind of self who’s inhabiting your body, which makes no neuroscientific sense, of course, but that’s how we feel. I am kind of in here. And we feel as though I, this kind of conscious thing, can decide to, you know, pick up this cup, have a drink of water, and that I’ve done that of my own free-will. Now if you look at it neuroscientifically, it seems to me what you see is endless mass of processes going on which lead to those things. And the reasons that I said that are to do with the question that you asked and the fact that I’m sitting here in this room and blah blah blah. They’re all caused. There’s no such thing as free-will. There’s will but it’s not free. It’s all happening because of what happened before. Interestingly that’s precisely what the Buddha said, “it’s all happening because of what happened before.”Interestingly that’s precisely what the Buddha said in theconcept of codependent arising, that everything that happens, happens from what happened before.
Paulson: Really? So the Buddhists don’t believe in free-will. I didn’t realize that.
Blackmore: No, most of them do. Most of them do but there are very interesting in Buddhism. And one of my favorite quotes from the Buddha is: “actions exist and also their consequences, but the person that acts does not.”So, you know, picking up the water and everything, that’s anaction and it has consequences in terms of thirst or spilling it on the floor or whatever it might be, but it’s not because there’s somebody in here who did it. All the actions happen because of the circumstances in the whole world.
Paulson: So the Buddhist might believe there is free-will but there’s no person who is free.
Blackmore: Well yeah, so who’s going to have it?
Paulson: Because there is no such thing as the self.
Blackmore: Yeah. So hard is this concept in Buddhism anatta. It’s not there is no self but that the self is not the kind of continuing, persistent, powerful sort of thing that we think it is. I would say that it is an illusion and when I say, I don’t mean it doesn’t exist. I mean it’s not what we think it is. We feel that the self is this kind of powerful thing in here. “This is me, this is what matters and I’m the same me as I was when I walked in this room. It’s got to be me, I’m continuous.”But I don’tthink that. This speaking machine here doesn’t think that. This speaking machine here thinks that the self who felt herself come into the room an hour ago or however long ago it was is a different one from now. Selves are just ephemeral things that pop-up and go away. And they particularly pop up if this body here and this brain for some reason goes, “am I conscious now?” There’s an “I”and here’s the stuff I’m conscious of and we create the illusion of duality and we get all into the hard problem and blah blah blah blah. And then it goes away into parallel processing again and then a little while later, “here I am again.”Only it isn’t me again.It’s a new ephemeral construction but it thinks it’s the same one because there are the same memories and the same continuous, sort of continuous body, roughly continuous body. That’s the way I think of it, so of course I go around in the world not being deluded into free-will. And this is one of the things I think is most interesting. I long ago gave up believing in free-will and I long ago gave up allowing the idea of free-will to motivate the things that I do. And that came about really from an intellectual inquiry when I was a teenager as much as it did from the Buddhism. And it’s like so many of things later in life, it’s kind of come together and I go, “oh yes, that does actually make sense.”
Paulson: What does it mean to give up free-will? I mean, do you live your life any differently because of that?
Blackmore: Well, it’s impossible to say, isn’t it? Because I don’t know how I would have lived it otherwise. But it means, if a difficult decision has to be made, I don’t think “it’s my free will, and I’ve got to decide.” I think, she’ll decide, now be sensible, things have to be done, the decision will happen, and it makes it easier to accept the things that happen and those things include decisions that this body made, and choices that it made.
Paulson: Fascinating! It almost sounds like you’re saying the decision will decide for itself and you’ll go along for the ride.
Blackmore: Yes, exactly. Only, in meditation and mindfulness, one is also letting go, or not being too obsessed with the idea that there is any one going along for the ride. Tricky stuff, isn’t it? [both laugh]. Oh, it’s awful! You ask these difficult questions and I do my best, but frankly, I wouldn’t be amazed if people listening go “what?” because I’m going “what?” myself. I’m doing my best to try to say how it is, how it feels, and where I’ve got to in these inquiries, but I still…it’s difficult stuff, it’s mysterious, and I’m just having a go and sharing it with you.
Paulson: Thank you so much, this has been great.
Blackmore: I thoroughly enjoyed this, so thank you very much.
Paulson: OK, thank you!