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Being You - Anil Seth ***

The trouble with experts is they often don't know how to explain their subject well to ordinary readers. Reading Anil Seth's book took me back to my undergraduate physics lectures, where some of the lecturers were pretty much incomprehensible. For all Seth's reader-friendly personal observations and stories, time after time I got bogged down in his inability to clearly explain what he was writing about. It doesn't help that the subject of consciousness is itself inherently difficult to get your head around - but I've read plenty of other books on consciousness without feeling this instant return to undergraduate confusion.

There are two underlying problems I had with the book. One was when complex (and, frankly, rather waffly) theories like IIT (Integration Information Theory) were being discussed. As the kind of theory that it's not currently possible to provide evidence to support, this is something that in other fields might be suggested not to be science at all yet. But that's not the issue - it's that it is really hard to put across what these theories say and why someone thinks they are correct to a non-specialist, and for me, Seth fails to do so clearly enough.

The second problem is a lot more basic and straightforward - and it's the point at which I lost any enthusiasm for the book. This is when psychology comes up against physics - for me, physics has to win. Seth tells us 'colour is not a definitive property of things-in-themselves... When I have the subjective experience of seeing a red chair in the corner of the room, this doesn't mean that the chair actually is red - because what could it even mean for a chair to possess a phenomenological property like redness? Chairs aren't red, just as they aren't ugly or old-fashioned or avant-garde.'

This is just putting psychology above physics, which simply doesn't work. Of course a chair can be red. If it absorbs white light and remits light with wavelengths of 650 nm, plus or minus around 30, it is red. Of course whether a human being perceives it as red, or assigns red associations to it is a subjective assessment. But that doesn't take away the fact that the chair is red. Seth refers to Kant's 'Ding an sich' concept explicitly in that quote above - admittedly Kant doesn't allow for us to know the 'thing in itself' fully, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

Although I struggled on, and found some bits more interesting, it was reluctantly. Some people will love this book. And Seth clearly knows his stuff. He is indeed an expert in his field. But Being You just didn't work for me as someone who should have been solidly in its readership profile.

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Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

  1. I'd love to read a really good, intelligible book about consciousness. I liked Dennett's 'Consciousness Explained' but it was tough going. (Like Dennett, I don't believe consciousness really exists, but hey, that's just my opinion).

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