Conscious

A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind
Narrated by: Annaka Harris
Length: 2 hrs and 22 mins
4.5 out of 5 stars (1,187 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

2020 Audie Finalist

As concise and enlightening as Seven Brief Lessons on Physics and Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, this mind-expanding dive into the mystery of consciousness is an illuminating meditation on the self, free will, and felt experience.

What is consciousness? How does it arise? And why does it exist? We take our experience of being in the world for granted. But the very existence of consciousness raises profound questions: Why would any collection of matter in the universe be conscious? How are we able to think about this? And why should we? 

In this wonderfully accessible audiobook, Annaka Harris guides us through the evolving definitions, philosophies, and scientific findings that probe our limited understanding of consciousness. Where does it reside, and what gives rise to it? Could it be an illusion, or a universal property of all matter? As we try to understand consciousness, we must grapple with how to define it and, in the age of artificial intelligence, who or what might possess it. 

Conscious offers lively and challenging arguments that alter our ideas about consciousness - allowing us to think freely about it for ourselves, if indeed we can.

©2019 Annaka Harris (P)2019 HarperCollins Publishers

What listeners say about Conscious

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    3 out of 5 stars

Good Introduction to the Hard Problem

If you are familiar with Sam Harris' work or with philosophy of mind, this book will seem fairly elementary. It basically summarizes some of the more basic mysteries surrounding consciousness and doesn't have much in the way of new ideas.

14 people found this helpful

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This is a great spring board...

A huge fan and member of Sam Harris’ “Making Sense/Waking Up” podcast/website... so of course I was curious after their recent podcast together.

So that was my catalyst... I have not yet gone too deep into what is “conscious” for all the reasons plus my own anecdotal experiences.

As one who has just become a new convert as an “hopeful agnostic” I have stirred away from this subject on purpose... I am still going through the “grieving process” as I continue to progress through my faith/human development.

This was a fantastic, coherent— just what I needed to help me gain more insight... I want to now go deeper and start to ask questions I have shelved.

I highly recommend this quick, broad and very rational perspective!

11 people found this helpful

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Missing some fairly obvious counterpoints...

First, this is a very decent short summary of the current state of the discussion around consciousness, which by itself is worth the short time spent in first half of the book. It is well researched and well read and time well spent if you don't know it. If you do, skip to the second half for a proposal to take seriously and examine the theory of panpsychism as related to consciousness. The author, without good reason or argument essentially argues that it should not be dismissed out of hand for consciousness to be a basic property of matter itself. She also argues, with much better arguments that human centric definitions of consciousness are counterproductive. So in the rest of the review, I'm going to mention the arguments author has missed or did not think of.

First of all, the basic definition of consciousness has a clear flaw. It does not allow to determine if anyone at all is conscious. A definition of predicate that does not lend itself to determining if the predicate is true for anything is just useless.

Now author's argument that consciousness is property of matter will reveal itself as absurd if you replace the word consciousness with the word chair. "If you remove a small piece of wood from a chair, it will still be a chair. If you have a little piece of wood, it clearly is yet not a chair, somewhere between it turns from not chair to a chair. Maybe that means that chair is the property of matter itself and it is distributed even in the smallest bit of matter." It is pretty obvious that chair is a property of the ordering of the atoms. That is the part that the author is missing. Something can be missing in every single bit of matter as it is a property of the pattern, not the substrate.

Why cannot be consciousness property of matter? Well it sort of depends on circumstances. Let me explain. For something, anything to have experience - so there can be something the thing is like - it has to change state. Somewhere locally has to occur a change in entropy. The smaller the matter is, the more difficult the conditions are for there to be a change in entropy at that level of matter. Quarks could only change entropy until 1 / 1,000,000th of a second from Big Bang. Hadrons until about a second, leptons until about 3 minutes. It takes a Large Hadron Collider and extreme amounts of energy to change entropy of single Hadrons. We can possibly talk about consciousness of atoms inside huge stars, but in normal conditions the smallest matter we can consider are molecules and crystals, in particular organic molecules are good candidates because of wide range of possible changes. That's just limitations from physics.

Now if there should be something that it is to be like, you imply that some experience can be recognized while repeated, other wise there is nothing but ever changing chaos with no pattern and there is nothing distinct from it to point to as that something. For that you need the local entropy of the open system to decrease, at the expense of the environment as total entropy will always increase due to 2nd thermodynamic law. So there has to be some process, which decreases local entropy of a system, increases the ordering of the matter. That is your best minimal candidate for consciousness, the process by which matter is ordered. Not just the ordering itself. That also gives you clear distinction as even ordered matter with no process to change entropy is not conscious. There might be other conditions on the process, but at minimum there has to be one. Outside of singularities like Big Bang, Black Holes and Large Colliders consciousness can naturally exist as low as organic molecules, but there is nothing preventing its existence in orderings of carbon nanotubes or movement of electrons in silicon matrices. But it is decidedly not the property of the matter itself.

11 people found this helpful

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A great book

Equal measures accessible and important. You need this book. It's of such a high quality that it's hard not to resort to hyperbolic cliches when describing it. It's a wonderful synthesis of both the science and philosophy of consciousness, laid out in clear and concise language. It's seriously great.

15 people found this helpful

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Fascinating Subject

Annika Harris does an intriguing job reporting on and describing the various aspects of and cultural conceptions we have concerning the elusive concept of consciousness.
However, I was disappointed to find that she falls into the trap of stating certain hypotheses stated by well known scientists as unquestionable fact when they are just as likely to be hubris. Her fundamental theories, related to free will and the self, stated as ultimate truth are, in truth, still open to question.
These self-evident propositions (are they?) are the ideas on which science builds logical structures which, unfortunately, often take the leap of presenting themselves as gospel. As a result these so called 'facts' limit the vast implications of being we are only just beginning to gain an inkling of.
All that said, overall her book is interesting, thought provoking, and well worth listening to.

2 people found this helpful

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Mind expanding

Short but good read, part about split brains was really fascinating. Narrator/author is excellent. Not sure if I agree with the author on everything, but I still liked it and would recommend it

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Perhaps a better definition?

"Conscious" in short is a discussion about the nature of consciousness and what it means to be conscious. Other reviewers have covered the contents of the book fairly completely, so I won't rehash that other than to say that three things would have really made the book a better read for me.

1. The text pulls in a lot of material from topics such as quantum physics, general relativity, philosophy, and neuroscience. For a "text" that is only roughly 2 1/2 hours in length, the topic-switches were a bit jarring, and I would have benefited from more focus even if by that focus some of the breadth of content were lost. The author seems intent on introducing panpsychism, so perhaps narrowing to that topic would have helped me follow along better.

2. I have wondered if much of the debate around consciousness is because we don't have a good working definition of consciousness, and in that vein the author defines consciousness in a way that is unclear to me. If I understand the author correctly, a thing is conscious if there is something that it is like to be that thing. This leads to three unsolved questions for me:

A) There is something that it is like to be a bacterium, or even a rock, but is that all it takes to be "conscious"? If this is all we mean by conscious, then it seems to me there is something it is like to be a quark relative to charge and spin, but is this all it takes to be conscious by any meaningful definition of the word "conscious"? That would render the last half of the book on panpsychism moot. Why bother to defend panpsychism if the definition eliminated all opposing views?

B) Changing the definition of "conscious" a bit from above, does the author really mean that something is conscious if it _knows_ what it is like to be itself? This would be more clear to me as a definition, but it still needs refinement to help me understand when the definition applies or doesn't. How much does a conscious thing need to know about itself to be conscious? It seems the more complex an organism is, the less it could know about itself. I know approximately zero percent of what it is like to be me when you consider all my intestinal bacteria, autonomic responses, etc. Forcing any level of knowledge would be the opposite result of panpsychism and nothing would be conscious in the universe using this definition.

C) Finally in this vein, does the author really mean that something is conscious if it can _ask_ what it is like to be itself? While it would be very hard to test this in practice, it seems like this definition might actually be testable in principle if "asking what it it like to be itself" could be mapped to a particular brain state that could be measured. This definition, however, may presuppose a brain state that can ask. Is that fair? Maybe the author can cover this in a subsequent edition.

3. If I understand the author correctly, the author seems to be making the case that properties exhibited by matter en masse must be present in the primitive constituents themselves. If I have misunderstood, then my apologies for being obtuse, but this argument does not make sense to me. As an example, consider solids such as concrete and fluids such as water (or even air). Solids and fluids are just collections of atoms, but does this imply that all atoms have a "solidity" or "fluidity" property? It seems (as a layman) that these are not primitive properties of atoms, but are primitive properties of the _relationship_ between certain configurations of multiple atoms. If the relationship between things can be just as primitive and important as the things themselves, then the panpsychism argument still has a lot more to show to make its case.

It's certainly possible the above three points were covered, and I was too obtuse to catch them. Maybe stronger readers will not struggle with the same issues as I.

5 people found this helpful

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Fascinating subject, disappointing treatment

The first third or so of this book had me hooked in. Consciousness is a fascinating subject, and I'm interested both in subjective aspects like meditation and in the neuroscience behind our minds and the processes underlying conscious experience. Unfortunately the book, rather than providing clarity as to how these things overlap (e.g. relationships between neurochemical processes and the experience of consciousness) or even what consciousness *is*, just muddles the picture by hand waving over all the juicy bits. There's no discussion of what consciousness is (though there's a good section detailing what it is not), and without that detail the subsequent discussions slide downward into a frustrating soup of confused metaphor and vague language, spending a decent chunk toward the end of the book justifying ideas about matter being inherently "conscious" while neglecting to recognize that this form of "consciousness" isn't interesting to anyone (and surely isn't what prompted the reader to start the book).

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Easy Listening

This book was very easy to listen to. While the subject matter is complicated Annaka makes understanding less so by her honest straightforward assessments.
However, I will need to buy the book in order to continue my research into consciousness as there is a lot of references contained in this work that warrant reading for sure!
Thank you for this brief but extremely cogent treatment of consciousness.

1 person found this helpful

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Truly thought-provoking

A short book whose acknowledgments were so good, they almost caused me to bump it up a star. It's so generous and filled with good will that you can’t help but realize how selfish most other acknowledgment sections are. And the list of scientists and philosophers who offered feedback is jaw-dropping in their prominence.

As for the book, it offers some of the clearest and most concise descriptions of free will and consciousness I’ve ever come across. The book's biggest contribution is a case for panpsychism — the idea that everything contains an element of consciousness, including the keys of my keyboard that I’m typing this with. Of course, she's not suggesting that all matter is capable of complex thought, just bits of consciousness, because otherwise, it's difficult to explain how consciousness appears. She takes apart the pieces of what we consider consciousness and explains how those traits are seen in things we don’t normally attribute consciousness to, such as how a "mother" tree can tell the difference between her genetic kin and unrelated trees of the same species — and can actively help them.

One especially intriguing part brings together the way a conscious observer today has the power to affect the path of a particle 10 billion years ago. And if you think this sounds absurd, Harris will agree with you and then offer convincing evidence to indicate it just might be true anyway.

Grade: A-

Narration: Clear, doesn't get in the way of the text.

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  • ron murp
  • 04-21-20

Panpsychism

A fair introduction to the background of consciousness philosophy and science, but all is available elsewhere. From chap 6 to the end it's basically trying to persuade the reader that panpsychism is a reasonable idea, but with many get out of jail disclaimers. As with many that meditate, too much reliance is placed on the weak argument that meditation provides any valuable insight into what consciousness is, what is required to have it.

It doesn't. Take neuroscientist that meditates while in an mfri scanner - everything he learns about consciousness from such an experiment he learns as a thoughtful neuroscientist reviewing the experiment, including assessing his own memory of his experience in the scanner. The actual meditation he performs while in the scanner will teach him nothing new at that time.

Despite claims to the contrary, the arguments for panpsychism are not only poor, but do sound like arguments for religion: a) an argument from incredulity, a consciousness of the gaps, that rejects the regular emergent complex feedback model; b) an argument of credulity, that because the hard problem is tough to crack, therefore consciousness is a fundamental feature of the universe.

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  • Kris
  • 09-13-19

Amazing material about the consciousness

Great book about the reality of the mind. I'm looking forward to read and hear more about that subject from Annaka Harris. Also I'm so grateful for all her and Sam work. They made a huge impact on my life and thanks to them I'm going on my first retreat soon.
All best guys 🖤

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  • Amazon Customer
  • 09-11-19

A thoroughly informative and enjoyable book

This book was just fantastic. The effort that must have gone into tying together the different strands of research and theories of consciousness is impressive. Harris does a fantastic job of making it accessible.

2 people found this helpful

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  • Shuffls
  • 09-04-19

fantastic book

Annaka did a fantastic job. It's got me thinking in new ways about this subject

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  • Anonymous User
  • 07-14-20

Short and inclusive analysis on consciousness

Key takeaway is the idea that being conscious one can notice what's going on around, but it doesn't necessarily mean that one is creating that reality as it is.

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  • MR M.
  • 05-05-20

Fascinating topic -

A short book, with an interesting and available insight into what consciousness may truly be, providing some of the more recent principles surrounding it.
On occasion Annika has a monotony to her voice that with the number of repetitions of the word “consciousness”, can make it hard to work through. But those who do, are rewarded with great content in concise writing.

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  • kamara b barnett
  • 03-02-20

Open your mind

loved this always been interested in consciousness and different ways of how it affects the world, but this is very in depth but easy to understand and take in, it answered many questions but expands your mind to many more. highly recommend!

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  • Mark U.
  • 11-07-19

Thought provoking

Interesting and thought provoking. Mostly easy for the layman to understand, but substantial enough for those with a more in depth knowledge.

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  • Spencer - London
  • 12-25-19

Great book for insomniacs

Unbelievably dull book. Mainly quotes from other people’s books and work. I gave up any idea of free will halfway through, as well as any will to live.

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  • Anonymous User
  • 09-09-19

FASCINATING

An amazing look into a fascinating topic. Annaka Harris makes an extremely compelling case. I can't wait for the next instalment.

1 person found this helpful