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Benjamin Libet - Mind Time

Mind Time is a disappointment. I must, first of all, admit to not being able to finish the whole thing. Life is too short to spend it on a book that seems to have no chance of getting better. I did make it through the first half, though, so it's not like my impression is based only on the first few pages.

So what is wrong with Mind Time? Just about everything. The writing isn't good. It isn't clear, witty, or even interesting. The research is old, very old. Much of it is 40+ years old. And finally, Libet's theory doesn't even seem nearly as astounding to me as it does to him. So our brains may take a half second to produce conscious awareness. So what? A half second isn't much time and doesn't seem all that important to me. Maybe it is, but Libet does nothing to convince me (at least in the first half of the book) that it is important.

There are other problems with Libet's writing. He can be hypocritical. On page 3 he points out that "if a proposal or hypothesis cannot be tested in a way that could potentially falsify the proposal" then it isn't science. Fair enough. Just two pages later, however, he states that "the feelings of spirituality, creativity, conscious will, and imagination, [are] not describable or explainable directly by the physical evidence alone." He doesn't show us the tests that can't falsify this proposal so I can only conclude that this is his faith and not science. But then on the very next page he rips the "many scientists and philosophers [who] appear not to realize that their rigid view that determinism is valid is still based on faith. They really don't have the answer." Libet doesn't provide us with his answer. Is he suggesting non-material, supernatural forces are at work? It sounds like it. But he never says. If he does believe in non-materialism, as he implies (on page 14 he states that "awarenesses of all kinds are equally unexplainable by materialist theories"), why bother with experiments, and spend his entire career, measuring the material?

A much more interesting, and well written, book on the subject is Conversations with Neil's Brain: The Neural Nature of Thought & Language.

from the publisher:
Our subjective inner life is what really matters to us as human beings--and yet we know relatively little about how it arises. Over a long and distinguished career Benjamin Libet has conducted experiments that have helped us see, in clear and concrete ways, how the brain produces conscious awareness. For the first time, Libet gives his own account of these experiments and their importance for our understanding of consciousness.

Most notably, Libet's experiments reveal a substantial delay--the "mind time" of the title--before any awareness affects how we view our mental activities. If all conscious awarenesses are preceded by unconscious processes, as Libet observes, we are forced to conclude that unconscious processes initiate our conscious experiences. Freely voluntary acts are found to be initiated unconsciously before an awareness of wanting to act--a discovery with profound ramifications for our understanding of free will.

How do the physical activities of billions of cerebral nerve cells give rise to an integrated conscious subjective awareness? How can the subjective mind affect or control voluntary actions? Libet considers these questions, as well as the implications of his discoveries for the nature of the soul, the identity of the person, and the relation of the non-physical subjective mind to the physical brain that produces it. Rendered in clear, accessible language, Libet's experiments and theories will allow interested amateurs and experts alike to share the experience of the extraordinary discoveries made in the practical study of consciousness.

This book is strikingly different from most of the other books on consciousness in one key respect: it focuses on empirical discoveries, not speculation or argument. --From the Foreword by Stephen Kosslyn
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