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Review - Conversations on Consciousness - Susan Blackmore

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This is a genuinely difficult book to review, because it has so many good aspects to it, yet there are a couple of problems that make it fail as a popular science book.

First the good news, though. Susan Blackmore manages to bring an informal feeling and light touch to a complex subject - consciousness, in an attractively designed text. The range of interviewees she picked is excellent, bringing in the inevitable usual suspects like Daniel Dennett and Roger Penrose, but also the likes of Francis Crick and less well-known but highly relevant experts. The conversations themselves are unstuffy and Blackmore manages to make the discussions dance around the subject of consciousness in a way that opens up the interviewee's ideas much more effectively than any set script could do. There's no doubt at all that there's lots to be learned about present ideas on consciousness from this book.

So what about those problems? The first is the format. The fact is, books of interviews rarely work - it's pretty well impossible to avoid them being a repetitious ragbag of ideas, and they simply lack the flow and readability of a good popular science book.

The second, and worse, aspect is the way the subject teeters on the brink between science and philosophy. Science books may sometimes be difficult to understand because the subject is complicated - texts on philosophy can often be difficult to understand because the content is simply too woffly and insubstantial to have any clear meaning. Science often attacks religion for presenting theories that can't be proved; philosophy is equally capable of generating pseudo-concepts (and jargon) out of pure hot air. Although it is entirely possible to have a book about consciousness that keeps philosophy in line, a book of interviews will inevitably fail to do this - and in the end it's this book's downfall.

This doesn't mean the book is bad. Not at all. And if you are studying consciousness seriously, it will give you some interesting insights - but you will have to work terribly hard to dig them out. A popular science book should do the digging for you: this one presents you with an intellectual potato patch and a spade. What you do with it is up to you.

Only in hardback.

Reviewed by Jo Reed

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Last update 05 June 2007