What’s this book about?
Zen and Art of Consciousness (2011) is a short, non-fiction book about the nature of mind, or rather, the nature of Susan Blackmore’s mind. To investigate her own consciousness, Blackmore meditates systemically on a series of questions or ‘koans‘ like “How does thought arise?” In summary, she argues that science should be focused on explaining things like the illusion of ‘self’ and free-will rather than the hard problem of consciousness.
Blackmore is a good writer, thinker, scientist, but a fairly average zen student. She doesn’t want to chop vegetables. She’s annoyed with everything. The book sees her hammering a series of zen koans with an embarrassingly large hammer of intellect and logic. She knows there must be an answer and has to get it right. Even her Zen master gets exasperated. At one point he gives her a red card for thinking too hard. Despite shooting waaay past the target, she stumbles across many insights (although even a profound insight isn’t safe from her ruthless interrogation).
A few interesting ideas
The world just bubbles up as it is
It’s all just happening anyway, whether I like it or not.
Thoughts are … like the crackling of the fire, the drifting incense smoke, or the bleating of sheep. By the time you notice them they have already been going on for some time.
Despite trying to think really hard, and not-think really hard, she notices that her general awareness doesn’t actually require any effort. Sounds keep sounding. The breath keeps breathing.
“Time and again I found that my mind had summed up the options, chosen one, carried it out, and moved on.”
I thought this was an interesting perspective on free will. We spend a lot of life wringing our fingers over decisions big and small. The pain is often stemming from the fact we are conscious that a conscious decision is even required. Blackmore observes that decisions will continue to get made whether you are aware of that process or not. William James talked about this here.