The best books to get your head around consciousness

Bernard Beckett Author Of Genesis
By Bernard Beckett

Who am I?

I’m an educator at heart and have been teaching in high schools for over thirty years now. I get a kick out of helping young people see the world anew and think about ideas in ways that at first seem strange and challenging to them, both in the classroom and through my novels. Of course, to be any good at that, I have to be inquisitive and open myself, and there’s nothing like the topic of consciousness to make you feel feeble-minded and ill-informed. It’s such a wondrous topic because it sits at the precise meeting point of so many of our scientific, cultural, artistic, religious, and philosophical traditions.


I wrote...

Genesis

By Bernard Beckett,

Book cover of Genesis

What is my book about?

Anax thinks she knows history. Her grueling all-day Examination has just begun, and if she passes, she’ll be admitted into the Academy—the elite governing institution of her utopian society. But Anax is about to discover that for all her learning, the history she’s been taught isn’t the whole story. And the Academy isn’t what she believes it to be. In this brilliant novel of dazzling ingenuity, Anax’s examination leads us into a future where we are confronted with unresolved questions raised by science and philosophy.

Centuries old, these questions have gained new urgency in the face of rapidly developing technology. What is consciousness? What makes us human? If artificial intelligence were developed to a high enough capability, what special status could humanity still claim? Outstanding and original, Beckett’s dramatic narrative comes to a shocking conclusion.

The books I picked & why

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Freedom Evolves

By Daniel C. Dennett,

Book cover of Freedom Evolves

Why this book?

The issues of free will and consciousness are, to my limited mind, inextricably linked. And so, while Dennett somewhat overpromised and underdelivered with his well-known Consciousness Explained (tremendously hard not to underdeliver with a title like that) here I think he’s much more on the money. I think of all the books that I’ve read which address, either directly or tangentially, the issue of how the mind works, this is the one that gave me the clearest new insight into how we might think about, well, thinking. Dennett is a fine thinker and an excellent communicator but he tends to lose nuance when he goes combative. This is one of his gentler books, and all the better for it.


The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist's Quest for What Makes Us Human

By V.S. Ramachandran,

Book cover of The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist's Quest for What Makes Us Human

Why this book?

This guy’s got genuine chops when it comes to thinking practically about the way the brain works. I love reading about the way various biological oddities affect how people perceive the world because of the insights it offers into the tricks all of our brains are playing. But I can never escape the suspicion that story tellers like to over-extraoplate from a small number of over-hyped cases. What I love about Ramachandran is that his work in the field means he’s considering stories he’s had first hand experience with.


What Is This Thing Called Science?

By Alan F. Chalmers,

Book cover of What Is This Thing Called Science?

Why this book?

Bookshelves groan under the weight of highly skilled science communicators, and through them those of us with no specialist knowledge can learn about evolution, quantum mechanics, neuroscience et al, and then bore people to death with our newfound knowledge. There is, however, a world of difference between the things science discovers and the stories we tell about these discoveries. I love this book because it makes the reader do the hard yards, thinking not just about the breathless new discoveries, but also the very nature of this knowledge, and hence its limits.


The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister's Pox: Mending the Gap between Science and the Humanities

By Stephen Jay Gould,

Book cover of The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister's Pox: Mending the Gap between Science and the Humanities

Why this book?

I do enjoy a good argument, especially when it’s between highly articulate experts in their field. Gould is a fine science writer who always flew the flag for caution when it came to over-interpreting our findings. Here he makes the case for different ways of knowing, and as a committed philosophical pragmatist myself, in the style of William James, I’m all for his insistence that we avoid the lure of crass reductionism, no matter how smart and superior this might make us feel. Ever so important when it comes to thinking about the big issues like consciousness.


I Am a Strange Loop

By Douglas R. Hofstadter,

Book cover of I Am a Strange Loop

Why this book?

I think glorious failures are far more interesting than modest successes, and let’s face it, any book that attempts to explain consciousness is bound to fail on so many levels. What I love about Hofstadter’s work is its boldness and reach. He’s as happy in the world of abstract metaphor as he is speaking of science or mathematics, and understands that we need new metaphors of consciousness just as badly as we need new scientific models. And even though he flounders at times, it kind of doesn’t matter, because of the sheer energy and verve of his quest: sort of Don Quixote with a calculator. For the math geeks amongst you, there’s an unusually clear and careful discussion of the incompleteness theorem as well. What’s not to like?


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