Nicholas Humphrey is a veteran of consciousness. In the 1980s he became well known as one of the originators of the "social" theory of consciousness which suggested that it evolved in the service of "Machiavellian intelligence": my consciousness gives me potentially valuable insight into the workings of your mind — valuable, that is, if I wish to manipulate your thoughts and behaviour. In the 1990s Humphrey had a sceptical dalliance with parapsychology, the science of the disembodied mind. In recent years he has written a series of books on the same central question: what sense can we make of the emergence of mind — especially sensation — from the matter of our brains? His new book is a beautifully written and highly original essay on the problem which he now claims to have solved.
What Is It Like To Be Conscious?
Explaining his solution requires some scene setting. Humphrey wears his learning lightly, but Soul Dust (Quercus, £25) gently introduces the reader to many of the dominant scientific and philosophical ideas about consciousness. Scientifically, Humphrey follows the American neurologist Antonio Damasio in drawing a distinction between "core" and "extended" consciousness. Core consciousness is the kind that it seems likely we share with many animals, the awareness of a "thick moment" of subjective time in which we experience complex sensations ranging from the anguish of hunger to the exhilaration of intensity. (Humphrey gives some lovely examples of animals enjoying intense experiences for the own sake, such as "whirlwind riding" in birds.) Extended consciousness is the more specifically human variety that allows us, for example, to travel mentally into our personal past, imagine the future or share ideas, like those I am describing now.
But core consciousness is the primal and primary kind. Humphrey builds on his previous work by describing its origins in the brain. He suggests, like Douglas Hofstadter, that it depends on "strange loops", by which we have come to internalise processes that originally allowed our very early ancestors to act on the world: the idea that multiple "re-entrant", looping, pathways in the brain play a key role in perception is indeed widespread in neuroscience, and there is plenty of evidence that they exist.
In his philosophical vein, Humphrey accepts that the "problem of consciousness" looks hard — perhaps, indeed, impossible. When we peek inside the brain we see only "pieces which push against one another and never anything by which to explain perception", as Leibniz put it. However much we learn about it, however willing we are to heed the scientists, most of us have a deep intuition that "we are also other". Showing how "the water of the brain gives rise to the wine of experience", how object gives rise to subject, is like showing that 2 + 2 = 5.
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