Sunday, April 08, 2012

Nicholas Humphrey - Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness (A Review)

Nicholas Humphrey's Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness was published in January of 2011, but one of the best reviews I have seen was only recently published (January 2012) in LSE Research Online (London School of Economics and Political Science).
Original citation:
Bloch, Maurice. (2012) The hard problem. Anthropology of this century, 3.

More on the review in a moment. First, here is a description of the book, from the Princeton University Press site.
How is consciousness possible? What biological purpose does it serve? And why do we value it so highly? In Soul Dust, the psychologist Nicholas Humphrey, a leading figure in consciousness research, proposes a startling new theory. Consciousness, he argues, is nothing less than a magical-mystery show that we stage for ourselves inside our own heads. This self-made show lights up the world for us and makes us feel special and transcendent. Thus consciousness paves the way for spirituality, and allows us, as human beings, to reap the rewards, and anxieties, of living in what Humphrey calls the "soul niche."

Tightly argued, intellectually gripping, and a joy to read, Soul Dust provides answers to the deepest questions. It shows how the problem of consciousness merges with questions that obsess us all--how life should be lived and the fear of death. Resting firmly on neuroscience and evolutionary theory, and drawing a wealth of insights from philosophy and literature, Soul Dust is an uncompromising yet life-affirming work--one that never loses sight of the majesty and wonder of consciousness.

Nicholas Humphrey has held posts at Oxford and Cambridge universities, and is now professor emeritus of psychology at the London School of Economics. His many books include A History of the Mind and Seeing Red.
You can read the first chapter of the book, Coming-to Explained, online. Here is a little taste of the book, just the first few paragraphs.

1 Coming-to Explained

Chances are it is less than a day since you regained consciousness. It probably happened soon after the sunlight returned this morning. What was it like for you, as you came to? remember? The chink of a milk bottle, the touch of sheets, the sight of a patch of blue sky. You rubbed your eyes, stretched your limbs, and before you knew it, waves of sensation refilled the lake of your being. You reemerged into the subjective present. Once more you felt yourself alive.
You were not alone. Something like this happened today to countless other individuals here on Planet earth. Our planet, we are told, is merely a condensate of stardust, not so different from all the other minor cosmic bodies that litter the universe. But this one planet has become home to an extraordinary phenomenon. Here is where sentience evolved. Here is where conscious selves have come into their own. Here live souls.

In this book I will address the questions of what sentience, selfhood, and soulfulness amount to. In the course of it I will propose a solution to the “hard problem of consciousness.” The hard problem is to explain how an entity made entirely of physical matter—such as a human being—can experience conscious feelings. The problem is hard because such feelings appear to us, who are the subjects of them, to have properties that could not possibly be conjured out of matter alone. We say—because we do not know what else to say—that “it’s like something” to be conscious. Yet, the problem with this inadequate phrase, “it’s like something,” is that what it is like seems to us—no, is to us—unlike anything else out there in the material world.

There are philosophers who think the problem is simply too hard to admit of a solution. For Colin McGinn, trying to explain phenomenal consciousness as a product of the brain is like trying to explain how you can get “numbers from biscuits, or ethics from rhubarb.”(1) For Jerry Fodor, “We can’t, as things stand now, so much as imagine the solution of the hard problem. The revisions of our concepts and theories that imagining a solution will eventually require are likely to be very deep and very unsettling. . . . There is hardly anything that we may not have to cut loose from before the hard problem is through with us.”(2)
I disagree.
I like Humphrey because he disagrees with the notion that we cannot solve this "hard problem," although I am not convinced (until I read the book) that I agree with Humphrey's solution.

Anyway, here is a taste of what I found to be a very well-considered review of the book.

The hard problem

Maurice Bloch

Soul dust: The magic of consciousness, by Nicholas Humphrey

This is an extraordinary book as it attempts to explain all the most distinctive things about human beings in a few hundred pages. It is written by a swashbuckling character who clearly does not hesitate to take up the most daring challenges. Perhaps such characterisation will be enough to put off the majority of social and cultural anthropologists who have grown weary of grand generalisations about our species made by scholars from the natural sciences who have very little understanding of why our subject has abandoned making such grandiose pronouncements. So often these proposals seem mere repeats of older theories which have subsequently been found wanting for reasons of which their new advocates are unaware. At least in this case such condemnation would be somewhat unfair as it is clear that the author is well acquainted with what many anthropologists write and have written and he is not unsympathetic as so many natural scientists are. Another reason why anthropologists might reject this book out of hand is less admirable; it may simply be a manifestation of the sad theoretical timidity which has recently characterised much of the subject.

Whatever the causes for reluctance, such dismissal would be a pity. The book is written in a fun manner which will both delight and annoy but will never bore. I believe the discussion it contains, or at least parts of it, can prove excitingly thought provoking to all practitioners of social and cultural anthropology. What I therefore say to my anthropological colleagues is: “Prepare to be infuriated but read the book all the same”.

Darwinian evolutionary theory frames the thesis. The argument is about the vexed question of the nature of human consciousness and what it implies. It thus attempts to explain the least obviously useful aspects of human beings as adaptations which account for their presence and survival. This however is not the usual ignorant reductionist stuff that we have all come to fear.

Probably explaining or describing consciousness is a task that most anthropologists consider to be beyond them but this is also the case for many scholars who come from disciplines such as philosophy, psychology or neurology and who might have been expected to have a go at telling us what consciousness is and even perhaps how it has come about. Indeed, many have recently attempted theories concerning the nature of consciousness. Nonetheless the most well known scholars who write on the subject seem more intent on recommending to others that they should not waste their time on such difficult questions. For example Nagel told us that we are such a long way from even understanding what we are talking about that we should not even start and Searle believed he had explained why any naturalist account of consciousness is impossible. Although Humphrey reiterates some of these pessimistic arguments he nonetheless believes that his evolutionary approach can overcome them.

Read the whole review.


Andy Smith said...

I haven’t read the book, but I see nothing in the review that suggests any kind of explanation for the hard problem (and I have trouble believing an author as intelligent, articulate and informed as Humphrey could really be so delusional as to think he has “solved” a problem that has stumped everyone else for so long).

What the review does suggest is that Humphrey is proposing a solution to a related problem, viz., the evolutionary function of consciousness. Though many thinkers think the solution to this problem is simple—consciousness allowed our behavior to be more flexible and creative—they don’t seem to understand that there is no reason in principle why behavior every bit as flexible and creative could not be manifested by a neurally complex yet completely unconscious organism (what philosophers call a zombie).

Anyway, here is what the reviewer says in regard to this:

“With an objectified representation of the self/soul as an exterior object came the realisation that one will die. This fact is so depressing that there would be little reason not to commit suicide on the spot. However, consciousness has enabled us to enjoy life and beauty and to create all sorts of ideas about these things; hence poetry and literature.”

This is no explanation of the hard problem, since it doesn’t address how consciousness could emerge, but only why it emerged, in the sense of its adaptive fitness, or ability to enhance survival. Even on these terms, though, there is a problem. If an organism is unconscious, it can’t feel depressed, in the way we usually understand the term. The effect that discovering its existence is ultimately doomed might have on it might better be described by a word like “negative”, which is only meant to imply that it triggers aversive behavior, that is, behavior that will avoid this fate.

I can understand how consciousness, by bringing experiences of pleasure, could act as a counter to the effects of negativity. But these effects do not include suicide. Why would an unconscious organism seeking to avoid death commit suicide? So beyond the fact that there is no explanation for how consciousness emerged (in the review; again, I can’t speak for the book), there really is no explanation for its survival value, either, that I can see.

william harryman said...

Thanks for your recent comments here, Andy - I appreciate your perspective. I just bought an ebook of your history of consciousness - I look forward to reading your views on this very complex and conflict-prone field.

Andy Smith said...

Thanks for the interest. As I alluded to in my comment, I have great respect for Humphrey. His work is in fact very critical to DE. He was one of the first to propose, more than thirty years ago, that social organization may have been a driving force in the evolution of the brain (the social intelligence hypothesis). That we needed a large brain primarily in order to keep track of all the interactions we make with others. This notion has had a major influence on my thinking. A central theme of DE is in fact a generalization of the idea to other organisms, even to other forms of life. So I’m always interested in what he has to say, and will probably buy the book and get a lot out of it even if I don’t accept the major premise.

Some more thoughts on that premise. The hard problem of consciousness really goes even deeper than I suggested. According to the Bloch review you linked, Humphrey claims that “consciousness has enabled us to enjoy life and beauty.” And this is what he thinks provides its evolutionary value. But according to the zombie argument, consciousness is not really necessary for this. That is, anything that we enjoy consciously can be enjoyed unconsciously. In this case there would be no conscious experience of joy, to be sure, but the functional purpose of enjoyment is there, and that is all that matters. That is, if conscious experience enhances the chance of survival, it must be because it makes certain behavior more likely (in this case, it seems, the behavior is simply not committing suicide). But according to the scientific worldview, this can only happen through neural processes in the brain. Neural processes are associated with enjoyment of “life and beauty”, and these processes result in other processes that lead to adaptive behavior.

So one can just eliminate the consciousness and the neural processes alone explain everything. A zombie could look at a sunset, and though there would be no conscious awe or joy, the neural processes that go on in our own brains when we experiences such joy or awe would also occur in the zombie. These in turn would trigger certain forms of adaptive behavior, in the same way that humphrey says happens for us.

Again and again, I find that even philosophers and scientists who ought to know better miss the subtlety of the hard problem, even the seemingly more tractable aspect of trying to account for the evolution of consciousness (as opposed to accounting for how consciousness emerges from neural activity). According to evolutionary theory, only behavior is adaptive. So no conscious experience by itself can have any effect on survival except to the degree that is associated with some behavior. But any form of behavior can be accounted for entirely by neural activity. Consciousness doesn’t seem to add anything necessary. That is the nub of the problem.

And this is true even if the behavior is entirely inner. E.g., conscious experiences of pleasure may reduce the odds of developing certain diseases, not by any outward behavior we make, but through effects on the immune system, blood pressure, etc. Again, the zombie argument indicates that all of this can be explained in terms of neural activity.