Susan Blackmore: Zen and the Art of Consciousness

Because I am trying to account for the evolution of our volitional consciousness I approached Susan's ruminations on ten zen questions wanting to see if they'd reveal obstacles in my path I was unaware of. Instead her book confirmed for me that zen koans are not so much about consciousness as they are pedagogic tools zen masters employ to train their disciples in switching at will between various mental capabilities. I finished the book relieved that my task appeared no more difficult that I already assumed.

Susan starts out assuming that consciousness is very difficult for people brought up like her to understand, and only a practice as alien to the Western intellectual tradition as zen could conceivably make it comprehensible. She concludes of her ruminations on ten koans that "The very thing that the science of consciousness is trying to explain, disintegrated on closer examination." One cannot doubt that she finds her experience of consciousness immune to intellectual analysis, but her ruminations convinced me only that zen koans are not an appropriate way to study consciousness, in fact they are explicity designed to make the subject seem more intractable. My belief that consciousness is as simple and accessible as it seems remained unshaken.

Here is a sampling of the koans Susan meditates on: Am I conscious now? What was I conscious of a moment ago? Who is asking the question? Where is this? How does thought arise? Are you here now?

I agree there is a huge difference between understanding consciousness and free will, and using science to explain them. In so far as contemporary science is still based on 19th century Positivism it is comanded to banish from its practices "volition, natural or supernatural" (to quote John Stuart Mill's translation of August Comte). Small wonder that after excluding consciousness from its subject material for a century science concludes consciousness is inaccessible to scientific study and therefore cannot exist. For those of us who are not scientists, however, consciousness surely does exist, and is not veiled in mystery.

Example: On waking I recall a dream. I remember experiencing anxiety. I wondered at things. I observed qualia: objects being red, sounds appearing musical, and so on. In other words, I remember being conscious in my dream. Who was conscious in the dream? Me, lying in bed. And who is conscious now, recalling the dream? Me. And if someone else tells me about a dream they had, in which they had conscious experiences, who was conscious in that dream? Them. They have conscious experiences too. Where's the mystery?

Is consciousness continuous? Maybe not, but who said it had to be? Is it any particular place? Not necessarily, but who said it had to be? Projection onto consciousness of the categories of physical science is unneccessary and I think misguided. Your problems when you do so impose no obligation on me to find the study of consciousness problematic. You're just looking at it with the wrong tools.

Susan Blackmore is influential in the world of the study of consciousness. She has authored numerous books on consciousness including "Consciousness: an Introduction," and is editor of "Conversations on Consciousness." In Cris Evat's book "The Myth of Free Will" Susan says “It is possible to live happily and morally without believing in freewill…. As for giving up the sense of an inner conscious self altogether–-this is very much harder. I just keep on seeming to exist. But though I cannot prove it, I think it’s true that I don’t.”

I believe we need not be ashamed of being conscious and having free will, nor need we make an effort to purge ourselves of them. Even the arch physicalist Edward O. Willson in his "Consilience: the Unity of Knowledge" warns of the danger of a denial of free will turning into fatalism, which he obviously appreciates as a calamity.

In "Zen and the Art of Consciousness" Susan exposes the roots of her anguish over failing to understand consciousness. Reading it may provide us with clues to the motivations behind that failure to understand wherever it appears. This could help in discussions between defenders and denyers of consciousness and free will.

Below, microdata:

Evolution for the Humanities
Zen and the Art of Consciousness consciousness