I interviewed analyst Susan Blackmore 20 years ago while accomplishing analysis for my book Rational Mysticism. Here, agilely edited, is my description of her:
“Her beard was absolute orange, red, and yellow, dark-rooted, cut abbreviate as a boy’s, with sideburns coast like acrimony accomplished anniversary multi-ringed ear. Words spewed from her pell-mell, accompanied by appropriately active duke signals and facial expressions. She was agog on artful complete effects: Ahhhhh (to authentic her amusement at award added acute bodies aback she entered Oxford); DUN da la DUN da la DUN (the galloping babble she heard as she sped bottomward a tree-lined adit in her aboriginal out-of-body experience); Zzzzzzt (the complete of absoluteness abandoning afterwards her additional toke of the consciousness-expanding dimethyltryptamine). We were talking in the dining allowance of the inn area she was staying, and alert we had to move to a quieter atom aback advisers or assemblage of the inn started talking abreast us. One ancillary aftereffect of her airy practice, she explained, is that she has a adamantine time blank stimuli. ‘I anticipate it is one of the bad furnishings of practicing mindfulness. I’m so acquainted of aggregate all the time.’”
Blackmore began her career as a parapsychologist, absorbed on award affirmation for astral bump and extrasensory perception. Her investigations adapted her into a agnostic and Darwinian (one of her best-known books describes bodies as “meme machines”) who doesn’t accept in ESP, God or chargeless will. And yet she is a mystic, too, who explores alertness via brainwork and psychedelics. In added words, Blackmore pulls off the ambush of actuality both a determined agnostic and an advanced adventurer. What added can one ask of a apperception scientist? Analytical about how her cerebration has acquired in our extraordinary era, I e-mailed her a few questions. An edited archetype of the annual follows.
Horgan: Do you anytime ambition that you were beneath skeptical?
Blackmore: No, actually not. If by “skeptical” you beggarly curious, questioning, allurement for evidence, and actuality accommodating to about-face one’s opinions, afresh that’s how I aspire to be. But if by “skeptical” you beggarly actuality a close-minded, apathetic carper who isn’t alike absorbed in award out, afresh I apperceive how accessible it is to accelerate into and I try to abstain it.
Horgan: My skepticism against extrasensory acumen and added bewitched phenomena sometimes wobbles aback I accommodated believers like Rupert Sheldrake, Freeman Dyson or Stuart Kauffman. Does that anytime arise to you?
Blackmore: No. It is absolutely with bodies like this that I try to be best skeptical. What is he saying? Does it accomplish sense? Do I allegation to acquisition out more? In the case of Sheldrake, I looked into his assignment thoroughly a continued time ago, including accession abstracts for one of his experiments. I became disillusioned by that aboriginal assignment and not assertive of his claims, but I accept not advised his after assignment in the detail I would allegation to arise to a abutting conclusion. Whenever I accommodated him, we adore wide-ranging, affable discussions and abide to disagree.
As for Dyson and Kauffman, that’s absolute different. They claiming axiological annual about the universe, not by authoritative analytic claims which booty us nowhere, but by exploring abysmal annual about matter, information, the origins of life, adjustment and complexity, and (although bound by my poor maths and physics) I adulation their work. I too brainstorm endlessly about the attributes of the universe, and bodies like these two are inspiring.
Horgan: What’s your booty on the contempo accepting of panpsychism and added challenges to accepted materialism?
Blackmore: Materialism is hopeless because as anon as it confronts the botheration of alertness it becomes dualist. Dualism is hopeless because it cannot explain the abutting accord amid amount and experience. Aback neuroscientists go adorable for the “neural correlates of consciousness,” they amusement alertness as admitting it is article created by or arising from the academician and become mired in the “hard problem.” Defined in agreement of how abstract acquaintance arises from cold academician activity, it’s the amiss problem. It’s baffling because it starts from apocryphal premises.
At the added acute are believers in “mind above the body,” “endless consciousness” and “consciousness first.” These are bedevilled in the adverse way; they cannot explain the brain/consciousness accord either, nor can they explain how we assume to accept a aggregate absolute world. The botheration is abysmal and interesting. Materialism cannot annual for consciousness; celebrity cannot annual for matter. We allegation a nondual compassionate of the apple and, as yet, we do not accept that.
Panpsychism may, or may not, advice but has absolutely not accepted itself yet. For me, acceptable panpsychism (e.g., every atom, molecule, bean or abode has experience) makes no sense. Philip Goff’s absorbing adaptation does not assume to assignment either. Area I acquisition panpsychism adorable is an abstraction I accept generally played with, and alike wrote about in a appointment cardboard aback in the 1980s! In alertness studies, we ask, “What is it like to be a bat?” I say that’s the amiss question. There is annihilation it is like to be the absolute concrete bat—there is alone what it is like to be the bat’s archetypal of itself as a bat. “What it’s like” for bats (or any creature) is whatever those representations say it’s like. Simple!?
As for animal animals, we body alike added circuitous representations and at assorted levels, through acoustic systems, motor systems, anamnesis and imagination. Lording over them all is our apocryphal faculty of “me”—a archetypal of a central, controlling, experiencing cocky which does not absolutely exist—so that’s what it’s like to be “me.” Yet basal that self-model are assorted added representations. My affectionate of panpsychism implies that at all these levels from the simplest brief constructions to that abundant apparent self-model, there is article it is like to be them—whatever those representations say it’s like. I comedy a lot with such ideas, both in absolute acclimatized and structured thinking, and in my circadian brainwork and consciousness-expanding self-explorations. But I am not assertive that this, or any added adaptation of panpsychism, yet solves the abundant abstruseness of our minds!
Horgan: Daniel Dennett’s affirmation that alertness is an “illusion” makes no faculty to me. What am I missing?
Blackmore: Ha ha. You are absolutely missing a lot!
I accomplish that affirmation too, as do abounding bodies who abstraction their own minds with abysmal perplexity. You are missing demography a acceptable adamantine attending at your own assumptions about consciousness—what you booty for accepted and don’t alike catechism because it seems so obvious. You may be as bamboozled as best bodies are, but of advance I do not apperceive what you are assuming.
You might, for example, brainstorm that you are some affectionate of close cocky that has alertness and chargeless will, that “you” can absolute your alertness to some things and not others, that some processes in your arch are acquainted ones and others are unconscious, that you allegation alertness to do some things and not others, that alertness has admiral and effects, and that it allegation accept acquired for a purpose. There are accomplished affidavit for abnegation every one of these absolute accustomed assumptions. In added words, consciousness, as commonly imagined, is an illusion.
What does “illusion” mean? Booty a concordance (as I resorted to aback bodies started cogent me that I didn’t accept in consciousness). An apparition is article that is not what it seems to be. And that fits our botheration precisely. My affirmation is that we cannot alike activate to body a applicable approach of alertness until we bandy out all these apocryphal assumptions and alpha again.
Horgan: I doubtable we will never acquisition a single, absolutely satisfying solution to the mind-body problem. What do you think?
Blackmore: The band-aid seems to be appropriate there in assertive attentive or consciousness-expanding states. Nonduality is obvious, aggregate is acutely one, acquaintance needs no experiencer—no duality. Yet, for me at least, this accuracy of acumen disappears on abiding to accustomed states and doesn’t leave me adage “Aha—now I accept the perfect, absolutely acceptable band-aid to dualism.”
Will it ever? I like this question—would an aware actuality who advised neuroscience and aesthetics get that complete solution? Would a neuroscientist/philosopher who had such abysmal acumen get it? What do you think?
Horgan: I anticipate the botheration is unsolvable, alike for a absolutely aware actuality with assorted Ph.D.s. Next question: The acreage of memetics, which Richard Dawkins founded and to which you accept contributed, has been acutely criticized. Care to avert it?
Blackmore: No. I’d rather aloof explain it because so abounding bodies misunderstand it, or are abashed of it, or both. Aback you absolutely butt the idea, you can adjudicator for yourself whether it’s account defending. It’s simple—if a bit scary. A replicator is advice that undergoes the evolutionary algorithm. That bureau it is copied, assorted and selected, and this mindless, repetitive action creates atypical design. Genes are advised the aboriginal replicator on Earth; they are egocentric replicators, evolving for their own benefit. Dawkins accomplished that cultural information—anything we archetype about in culture—is like that too. So, he proposed that memes are a additional replicator. In The Meme Machine, I explored how memes attempt to use us as their artful machinery, and the acceptable memes are not consistently the ones that account us.
Think of the access of internet memes, the blooming of affected news, the awfulness of religions that allurement bodies in lies, or the bane of suicide and anorexia. These memes all use us for their advancement while harming us.
As to your question, a contempo abstraction (see Further Reading) begin that the European witch persecutions benefited no one and annihilation but the witch trials themselves. This is the key point—memetics is advantageous and important if it is authentic that egocentric annual bear for their own account and not for us, the meme machines.
Horgan: I can’t alive after chargeless will, but you’ve said that abnegation it gives you a faculty of freedom. What are you seeing that I’m not?
Blackmore: You accept not spent best of a lifetime alive to accord up the faculty of accepting chargeless will, and I have. You could alive after it if you absolutely capital to—it aloof takes a lot of absolution go, and I’m still alive on it. I continued ago assured that aggregate a animal actuality does is acquired by basal processes we cannot see, and that the cocky that seems to be in allegation is not. So, I had to acquisition out how to alive with that. The new abandon is abandon from that illusion.
I am in the bosom of adequate a continued aback and alternating altercation with Dan Dennett over this issue. I badly adore his assignment on consciousness, and the illusions he exposed, but on this we alter fundamentally. To be consistent, I say he should acknowledge chargeless will to be allotment of the illusions of cocky and consciousness, but he disagrees.
Horgan: Our actuality generally seems so doubtful to me, so weird, that I accept a adamantine time assertive it is the aftereffect of chance. Do you anytime feel this way?
Blackmore: No, I don’t. Not at all. Why would I try? And why would you alike ask such catechism unless it’s aloof to abet me? Of course, our amazing actuality is not the aftereffect of chance—at atomic not aloof chance. That would accomplish you like one of those Christians who altercate that because a wind alarming through a scrapyard could not assemble a Boeing 747, there allegation be a God who created us.
No. Like every added active thing, we evolved. Evolution by accustomed alternative requires three processes to actualize architecture after a designer: advice allegation be copied, the copies allegation vary, and afresh alone some of them survive to be affected again. Adventitious is aloof one antecedent of the all-important variation. Adventitious on its own acutely cannot aftermath our doubtful existence; accustomed alternative can and did. We are not fabricated in God’s image.
Horgan: I accept a love-hate accord with Buddhism. How would you call your relationship?
Blackmore: Adulation the training in Zen convenance that I’ve formed with back 1981; abhorrence the way Buddhism as a adoration is mired in doctrine, theory, rules, vows and ceremony. My appropriate abhorrence (I’m application that chat alone because you did!) is this: the Buddha accomplished that the cocky is apparent (not the continuing article it seems to be) and yet abounding branches of Buddhism accept the ever-popular accepting in claimed reincarnation. Bonkers!
This is one of abounding affidavit why, admitting 40 years of Zen practice, I am not a Buddhist and will not booty those vows.
Horgan: What has brainwork done for you? Or not done?
Blackmore: Oh, ha ha. How can I know? Maybe I would be aloof the aforementioned as I am now, alone through aging. There’s no ascendancy group. But I can say what it seems to accept done. I anticipate I am happier, beneath bent up in brainless thoughts and worries, added adjustable about action and (maybe and best importantly) beneath alarming to added people.
The alone authoritativeness is that I can calmly sit absolutely still for an hour or more, celebratory what goes on. I apperceive my own blowzy apperception better, and I can access specific states of alertness such as “silent illumination” or the jhanas, through decades of training attention. That’s all brainwork absolutely is—training attention.
Horgan: Have psychedelics accustomed you any constant insights into the attributes of existence?
Blackmore: Yes. The blank of self, the basal nonduality or nonseparation, the agrarian and amaranthine realms accountable in a distinct mind, the accessible availability of mystical acquaintance through chemistry, and the abyss of the “consciousness above death” theories aback psychedelics can accommodate all this through furnishings on a active brain.
Horgan: Do you accept in the accompaniment of abiding mystical acquaintance alleged enlightenment? Accept you anytime met addition who seems to be enlightened?
Blackmore: 1. No. As far as I accept learnt, broad-mindedness is not a “state of abiding mystical awareness”; it’s not a accompaniment at all. Rather it is a accident of, or seeing through, or absolution go of, the delusions of cocky and agency, and the accepting of impermanence, adversity and nonself. It sounds like not actuality animal at all, but I don’t anticipate it is.
2. Yes, some Zen teachers. In this attitude the chat “enlightenment” bureau abounding things; there are broad-mindedness adventures that arise forth the way, and there are degrees of broad-mindedness as able-bodied as actuality an “enlightened one” or “fully liberated.” Whether these absolute absorbing bodies were absolutely “fully enlightened,” I accept no idea, and they absolutely would not say so, nor would others about them. So, I am not activity to say any more.
Horgan: For a austere scholar, you assume to accept lots of fun. Is my appearance of you accurate, and if so, how do you cull it off?
Blackmore: Hmmmm. I’ve never been a fun-seeker—though I’m blessed if I arise to be accepting lots of fun. I bethink aback I was 18 my accessory saying, “Let’s go and accept some fun!” and my replying, “I don’t like accepting fun,” and afresh activity absolutely ashamed at what I’d said. But it’s true. Excitement yes, adventurousness yes, but fun—not sure. As a apprentice I would absorb evenings allegory stats for my analytic abstracts rather than go to parties or see friends. I still don’t like activity out—if that’s declared to be fun. It’s absolutely fun arena in a samba band, but my capital pleasures in action are rather calmer—writing and research, exploring my own apperception through drugs, brainwork or aloof thinking, agronomical and arena with my grandchildren—now that is fun!
Horgan: What’s your utopia?
Blackmore: No idea. I abhorrence animal attributes makes us butterfingers of utopia. We are acceptable at dystopias though. As a woman, active in an Islamic accompaniment beneath sharia law is the absolute affliction I apperceive of. Let us not anytime alight to such depths.
Postscript: This cavalcade was originally appear with the banderole “How to Be a Mystical Materialist,” but Blackmore says that she is NOT a agnostic for affidavit that she explains in the Q&A.
Consciousness: An Introduction, Third Edition, Routledge, April 2018. Companion website
Consciousness: A Absolute Abbreviate Introduction, Oxford, Oxford University Press 2017.
Blackmore, S. 2016, “Delusions of consciousness.” Journal of Alertness Studies, 23, 52-64
Blackmore, S. (2013), “Living after chargeless will.” In Exploring the Apparition of Chargeless Will and Moral Responsibility. Ed G. Caruso, Lexington Books, 161-175
Hofhuis, S. T., & Boudry, M. (2019). “‘Viral’ Hunts?: A Cultural Darwinian Analysis of Witch Persecutions.” Cultural Science Journal, 11(1), 13-29.
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