Philosophy of the mind has always been one of my favourite realms of philosophy. I love thinking about how we think. About why we think. Consciousness, sentience, intelligence—how did these traits evolve? How do they even work? Patrick House explores Nineteen Ways of Looking at Consciousness (literally what it says on the tin) and tries to address these questions. As he admits in the introduction, he doesn’t have all the answers—none of us do—but he has a lot of fun mulling over some of the theories that are out there. However, I didn’t have as much fun reading this book.
Thanks to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for providing the eARC!
I’m not going to attempt to summarize the nineteen ways. Some of them are a little out there, a little difficult for me to conceptualize let alone express. Basically, each chapter is a different way of explaining or examining consciousness. In all of these chapters, House relates these ideas back to a single study, published in Nature, in which electric current applied to a teenage girl’s brain during surgery stimulated laughter. He tries to apply elements of the chapter’s theory or lens for viewing consciousness to the study to see what we might learn.
Something I loved from the beginning of this book is House’s enthusiasm for and wonder about consciousness. He states that neuroscience is at a stage right now similar to how physics was, say, four hundred years ago. I thought that was a really interesting and apt analogy. Despite all our scientific progress in the last century or so, we really have so far to go in our understanding of the brain—and I’m not talking about that myth that we only use ten percent of it! If you stop and think about it, as House points out in his introduction, it’s wild that non-living matter (amino acids) can somehow come together to form life, and that in turn, we are somehow conscious and actually give birth to other organisms that develop their own, distinct consciousness.
So in this respect, House does a great job at communicating his appreciation for diverse views on consciousness. Each chapter reads in some ways like a revelation, and I think many readers will appreciate how he unpacks these various ideas and challenges us to think about consciousness differently.
Unfortunately, I think my expectations for the book weren’t aligned with what this book actually is. I was hoping for a book that was grounded a bit more in scientific theories, whereas House gives us a lot of philosophy. While the theories House has chosen to present here are all grounded in some type of scientific research, this book is less about explaining the whys and hows of that research and more about describing the consequent theory in a very poetic way. Like I said, I don’t mind philosophy—it just isn’t what I was expecting here.
I don’t want to damn this book with faint praise, because I really do think there is an audience out there for it. This book just wasn’t right for me at this time.