February 12, 2009
UK psychologist Susan Blackmore is a highly sought-after expert on a recurring theme in Buddhist inquiry: consciousness. She is the author of Consciousness: An Introduction, Conversations on Consciousness, A Very Short Introduction to Consciousness, and the acclaimed book The Meme Machine.
We've just gotten our hands on her latest project, a synthesis of philosophy and practice entitled Ten Zen Questions. The stumpers Blackmore poses are not easy to get a handle on, but that is exactly the point: Am I conscious now? What was I conscious of a moment ago? When are you? What happens next? Her chapter-length responses to each are firmly rooted in the dirt of personal experience; anecdotes from life on and off the cushion lay the groundwork for an engagement with these mental puzzles.
Drawing on an extensive knowledge of brain science, Blackmore enters the "Buddhism as science" discussion from an informed perspective, and her challenges are compelling:
Science needs clear thinking, and scientists have to construct logical arguments, think critically, ask awkward questions, and find the flaws in other people's arguments, but somehow they are expected to do this all without any kind of preliminary mental training. Certainly science courses do not begin with a session on calming the mind.
[This book is] my attempt to see whether looking directly into one's own mind can contribute to a science of consciousness. Bringing personal experience into science is positively frowned upon in most of science; and with good reason. If you want to find out the truth about planetary motion, the human genome or the effectiveness of a new medicine, then personal beliefs are a hindrance not a help. However, this may not be true of all science. As our growing understanding of the brain brings us ever closer to facing up to the problem of consciousness, it may be time for the scientist's own experience to be welcomed as part of the science itself, if only as a guide to theorising or to provide a better description of what needs to be explained.
Be sure to check the book out. And while you're thinking about the above quote, remember one thing about scientific questions:
They seem to require both the capacity to think and the capacity to refrain from thinking.