Welcome perplexity

If you think you have a solution to the problem of consciousness you haven’t understood the problem. Strictly, that is not true, of course. You may either be a genius and have found a real solution, or be sufficiently clear-sighted to understand why there was no problem in the first place. More likely, however, is that you are falling into a number of tempting traps that help you evade the real issues.

In 1986 the American philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote “Certain forms of perplexity—for example, about freedom, knowledge, and the meaning of life—seem to me to embody more insight than any of the supposed solutions to those problems.” (Nagel 1986 p 4). This is equally true of the problem of consciousness. Indeed the perplexity can be part of the pleasure, as philosopher Colin McGinn points out “… the more we struggle the more tightly we feel trapped in perplexity. I am grateful for all that thrashing and wriggling.” (McGinn 1999 p xiii).

If you want to think about consciousness, perplexity is necessary—mind-boggling, brain-hurting, I can’t bear to think about this stupid problem any more—perplexity. For this reason a great deal of this book is aimed at increasing your perplexity rather than reducing it. So if you do not wish your brain to hurt (though of course strictly speaking brains cannot hurt because they do not have any pain receptors – and, come to think of it, if your toe, which does have pain receptors, hurts, is it really your toe that is hurting?) stop reading now or choose a more tractable problem to study.

My motivation for wishing to stir up perplexity is not cruelty or cussidness, nor the misplaced conviction that long words and difficult arguments are signs of cleverness or academic worth. Indeed I think the reverse; that the more difficult a problem is, the more important it becomes to use the simplest words and sentences possible. So I will try to keep my arguments as clear and simple as I can while tackling what is, intrinsically, a very tricky problem.

Part of the problem is that the word ‘consciousness’ is common in everyday language, but is used in different ways. For example, “conscious” is often contrasted with “unconscious”, and is taken as more or less equivalent to “responsive” or “awake”. “Conscious” is used to mean the equivalent of knowing something, or attending to something, as in “She wasn’t conscious of the crimes he’d committed” or “He wasn’t conscious of the rat creeping up quietly under his desk.” In addition, consciousness is used to mean the equivalent of “subjectivity” or personal experience, and this is the sense in which it is used throughout this book.

Another problem is that consciousness studies is a new and multidisciplinary subject. This can make life difficult because cognitive scientists, psychologists and philosophers sometimes use the very same words in completely different ways. Yet the interdisciplinary nature of the subject is also what makes it so exciting, and may, in time, prove to be its strength. In this book I have tried to cover all of the major approaches in consciousness studies, including psychology, philosophy, artificial intelligence, cognitive science, neuroscience, first-person methods and spiritual approaches. Even so, the emphasis is on a science of consciousness based on empirical findings and testable theories.

When people have tried to fit consciousness neatly into brain science they find they cannot do it. This suggests that somewhere along the line we are making a fundamental mistake or relying on some false assumptions. Rooting out one’s prior assumptions is never easy and can be painful. But that is probably what we have to do if we are to think clearly about consciousness.

The organisation of the book

This book is divided into nine relatively independent sections containing three chapters each. Each section may be used as the topic for a lecture, or several lectures, or may be read independently as an overview of the area. However, all of them depend on the ideas outlined in Section 1, so if you choose to read only parts of the book, I would recommend reading Section 1, on the nature of the problem.

Each chapter contains not only a core text, but profiles of selected authors, explanations of key concepts, exercises to do and questions to test your understanding. There are also suggestions for exercises and discussions that can be done in groups.

At the end of each chapter is a list of suggested readings. These are chosen to be short and readily accessible, while providing an original source of some important ideas in each chapter. Full references are provided throughout the text, but these suggested readings give a quick way in to each topic. They should also be suitable as set reading between lectures for those whose courses are built around the book, or as the basis for seminars.

Interesting quotations from a wide variety of authors appear in the margins. Some are repeated from the text, while others are just added to provide a different perspective. My advice is to learn those that appeal to you by heart. Rote learning seems hard if you are not in the habit, but it gets quickly easier with practice. Having quotations at your mental fingertips looks most impressive in essays and exams but, much more important, it provides a wonderful tool for thinking with. If you are walking along the road or lying in bed at night, wondering whether there really is a ‘hard problem’ or not, your thinking will go much better if you can bring instantly to mind Chalmers’s definition of the problem, or the exact words of his major critics. At the risk of succumbing to a sound-bite mentality, often a short sentence is all you need.

Putting in the practice

Consciousness is a topic like no other. I imagine that right now, this very minute, you are convinced that you are conscious—that you have your own inner experience of the world—that you are personally aware of things going on around you and of your own inner states and thoughts—that you are inhabiting your own private world of awareness—that there is something it is like to be you. This is what is meant by being conscious. Consciousness is our first-person view on the world.

In most of our science and other studies, we are concerned with third-person views—with things that can be verified by others and agreed upon (or not) by everyone. But what makes consciousness so interesting is that it cannot be agreed upon in this way. It is private. I cannot know what it is like to be you. And you cannot know what it is like to be me.

So what is it like to be you? What are you conscious of now?

Well … ? Take a look. Go on. I mean it. Take a look and try to answer the question ‘What am I conscious of now?’.

Is there an answer? If there is an answer, you should be able to look and see. You should be able to tell me, or at least see for yourself, what you are conscious of now, and now, and now—what is ‘in’ your stream of consciousness. If there is no answer, then our confusion must be very deep indeed, for it certainly seems as though there must be an answer—that I really am conscious right now, and that I am conscious of some things and not others. If there is no answer then at the very least we ought to be able to understand why it feels as though there is.

So take a look and first decide whether there is an answer or not. Can you do this? My guess is that you will probably decide that there is; that you really are conscious now, and that you are conscious of some things and not others—only it is a bit tricky to see exactly what it is like because it keeps on changing. Every time you look things have moved on. The sound of the hammering outside that you were conscious of a moment ago is still going on but has changed. A bird has just flitted past the window casting a brief shadow across the window sill. Oh, but does that count? By the time you asked the question ‘What am I conscious of now?’, the bird and its shadow had gone and were only memories. But you were conscious of the memories weren’t you? So maybe this does count as ‘what I am conscious of now’ (or, rather, what I was conscious of then).

You will probably find that if you try to answer the first question, many more will pop up. You may find yourself asking ‘How long is ‘now’?’ ‘Was I conscious before I asked the question?’, ‘Who is asking the question?’. Indeed you may have been asking such questions for much of your life. Teenagers commonly ask themselves difficult questions like these and don’t find easy answers. Some go on to become scientists or philosophers or meditators, and pursue the questions in their own ways.  Many just give up because they receive no encouragement, or because the task is too difficult. Nevertheless, these are precisely the kinds of questions that matter for studying consciousness.

I hope the practice tasks will help you. I have been asking these questions many times a day for about twenty years, often for hours at a stretch. I have also taught courses on the psychology of consciousness for more than ten years, and encouraged my students to practice asking these questions. Over the years I have learned which ones work best, which are too difficult, in which order they can most easily be tackled, and how to help students who get into a muddle with them. I encourage you to work hard at your own inner practice, as well as studying the science.

Getting the balance right

Most of this book is about third-person views. We will learn about neuroscientific experiments, philosophical inquiries, and psychological theories. We will learn to be critical of theories of consciousness, and of the many ways of testing one against another. But underlying all of this is the first-person view, and we must strike a balance between studying one and studying the other.

That balance will be different for each of you. Some will enjoy the self-examination and find the science and philosophy hard. Others will lap up the science and find the personal inquiry troubling or trivial. I can only say this—both are needed—and you must find your own balance between them.

As you become acquainted with the growing literature of consciousness studies, and if you have managed to strike a balance between the inner and outer work, you will begin to recognise those writers who have not. At one extreme are theorists who say they are talking about consciousness when they are not. They may sound terribly clever but, once you have learned to see more clearly, you will immediately recognise that they have never looked into their own experience. What they say simply misses the point. At the other extreme are those who waffle on about the meaning of inner worlds or the ineffable power of consciousness while falling into the most obvious of logical traps—traps that you will instantly recognise and be able to avoid. Once you can spot these two types you will be able to save a lot of time by not struggling with their writings. There is so much to read on the topic of consciousness that finding the right things to struggle with is quite an art. I hope this book will help you to find the reading that is worthwhile for you, and to avoid the time-wasting junk.


Studying consciousness will change your life. At least, if you study it deeply and thoroughly it will. As the American philosopher Daniel Dennett says “When we understand consciousness … consciousness will be different” (1991, p 25). None of us can expect thoroughly to ‘understand consciousness’. I am not even sure what that would mean. Nonetheless I do know that when people really struggle with the topic, they find that their own experience and their own sense of self, change in the process.

These changes can be uncomfortable. For example, you may find that once-solid boundaries between the real and unreal, or the self and other, begin to look less solid. You may find that your own certainties—about the world out there, or ways of knowing about it—seem less certain. You may find yourself beginning to doubt your own existence. Perhaps it helps to know that many people have had these doubts and confusions before you, and have survived. Indeed, many would say that life is easier and happier once you get rid of some of the false assumptions we so easily tend to pick up along the way—but that is for you to decide for yourself. If you get into difficulties I hope you will be able to find appropriate help and support, from peers, teachers or other professionals. If you are teaching a course using this book, you should be prepared to offer that support yourself, or be able to advise students on how to find it.

In some of my classes I have had a few students who held religious convictions or believed in God. They usually found that these beliefs were seriously challenged by the course. Some found this difficult, for example because of the role of their beliefs in family ties and friendships, or because their beliefs gave them comfort in the face of suffering and death. So if you do have such beliefs you should expect to find yourself questioning them. It is not possible to study the nature of self and consciousness, while labelling God, the soul, the spirit, or life after death ‘Off Limits’.

Every year I give this same warning to my students—both verbally and in writing. Every year, sooner or later, one of them comes to me saying “You never told me that ….”. Happily most of the changes are, in the end, positive, and the students are glad to have been through them. Even so, I can only repeat my warning and hope that you will take it seriously. Studying consciousness will change your life. Have fun.