Nicholas Humphrey’s new book Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness is all about trying to solve the so-called “Hard problem of phenomenal consciousness”. And Humphrey does indeed take on an immense task. He says that “I felt challenged to have one more go at writing the earth-shattering book—or, at any rate, the book that shows the fly the way out of the fly bottle.” [I apologize for the lack of page numbers in this review, but I am reading the Kindle edition and no page numbers are provided – G.] So was my world shattered upon reading about his ideas? Not really. Which isn’t to say that I think he made no progress on solving the Hard problem. So what is the Hard problem exactly? As Humphrey puts it, “The hard problem is to explain how an entity made entirely of physical matter—such as a human being—can experience conscious feelings.” And what are conscious feelings? Humphrey sticks close to the philosophical orthodoxy in setting out the explanandum of phenomenal consciousness in terms of “what-it-is-like-ness”. He says that “A subject is “phenomenally conscious” (or plain “conscious”) when and if there is something it’s like to be him at this moment.”
So for Humphrey the big problem is to give a naturalistic account of why, for humans, there is “something it is like” to interact with the world when we are awake. I have expressed before in my blog posts and research papers my dissatisfaction with this way of setting up the problem of consciousness in terms of what-it-is-like-ness, primarily because I am convinced that it makes sense to say that there is something it is like to be entirely nonconscious. But this terminological quibble hasn’t prevented me from appreciating Humphrey’s approach to the problem. In fact, despite this confusion about defining phenomenal consciousness, I think Humphrey is on the right track as far as what consciousness “is” and what it “does”. The very fact that Humphrey thinks that consciousness “does” something at all makes me like him tremendously because coming up with a functional, adaptive benefit for consciousness is the most promising route for the naturalization of consciousness. So I have to give Humphrey props for not buying into the idea of a “philosophical zombie”, a being that is functionally identical to humans yet lacks consciousness. Humphrey rightly sees that this concept is “daft” because we actually can give an account of how having “conscious feelings” changes the functional/behavioral profile of any organism which has the capacity to be conscious.
So if Humphrey thinks that consciousness “does” something, what is it exactly and what does it do? As he says “To experience [conscious] sensations “as having” these [phenomenal] features is to form a mental representation to that effect…Thus “consciousness” (or “being conscious”), as a state of mind, is the cognitive state of entertaining such mental representations.” As we can see from these quotes, Humphrey seems to be taking a kind of higher-order approach to consciousness in that he makes a distinction between creatures who merely respond to stimuli and creatures who respond to that response with a kind of higher-order mental representation. As he says, “In short, for the subject to have a sensory experience that is like something is just for him to experience it as what it is like.” Humphrey thus makes an important distinction between reactions to stimuli and the experience of neurally entertaining that reaction in a higher-order cognitive space. As he says, “In modern human beings, [conscious] sensation—for all its special phenomenal features—is still essentially the way in which you represent your interaction with the environmental stimuli that touch your body: red light at your eyes, sugar on your tongue, pressure on your skin, and so on.” So for Humphrey, it is possible to have nonconscious perception (what I have called “reactivity”) . A unicellular organism, for instance, reacts to stimuli in a meaningful and coherent way, but it does not react to its own reaction in terms of creating a “as-if” representation of that experience.
But how do we represent our experience? “Consciousness is no more or less than a piece of magical ‘theater’.” So Humphrey thinks that conscious experience involves experiencing ourselves as being part of a nonphysical, magical “theater”. But it is crucial to realize that Humphrey thinks that, from the perspective of science, this theater is but a trick or illusion of the brain. Two points can then be made: “First, from the subject’s point of view, consciousness appears to be a gateway to a transcendental world of as-if entities. Second, from the point of view of theory, consciousness is the product of some kind of illusion chamber, a charade.” This is a classic Dennettian thesis, and Humphrey acknowledges that the philosopher he is closest to is Dennett. And this is why I like Humphrey’s approach to consciousness despite my hangups with denying nonconscious animals a “what it is like”.
Perhaps my biggest problem with Humphrey’s book is not that I disagree with the “consciousness is a fiction” approach, but rather, with his attitude of originality when he rhetorically asks “Is this the clever new idea we need?” Indeed, Humphrey seems to be rather proud of his “new” idea that consciousness is essentially a cognitive phenomenon generated by higher-order representations which represent reactions to stimuli as being “magical” or “theater like”. But as readers of my blog know, Julian Jaynes said it first, and better.
Indeed, Jaynes had the idea that consciousness is in a sense a “virtual illusion” that takes on the phenomenal properties of something like a theater. Jaynes called this theater the “analog mind space”, and theorized that it was generated by an “as if” function. So when Humphrey says that our response to stimuli “has become a virtual expression occurring at the level of a virtual body, hidden inside your head”, he is essentially redescribing Jaynes’ theory that consciousness involves, in part, the creation of an “Analog I” which is an virtual analog of the body, hidden “inside” the head in the form of an analog mind-space, which is an analog of the physical environment our sense has become familiar with. And when Humphrey says that “our ancestors were nonconscious before they were conscious”, this is not a new idea at all, but one that Jaynes argued for over 30 years ago. So when Humphrey says that “Thus, for you to have the [conscious] sensation of red means nothing other than for you to observe your own redding”, this is more or less the same distinction Jaynes developed between reactivity and consciousness of reactivity. Jaynes thought that most animals are capable of intelligently reacting to their environment without being conscious. This is the same idea Humphrey argues for.
And another area where I think Jaynes is superior and (still) cutting edge is that Jaynes isolated the evolution of this “theater function” as being a product of language. The “as if” functions which generates a “virtual body” and a “virtual theater” are, for Jaynes, dependent on the special analogical capacities of lexical metaphors. Without metaphorical language, we would have never been able to generate the “as if” functions which integrate sensory reactions with higher-order representations. So not only does Jaynes’ theory have more flesh on it in terms of historical specificity and the concreteness of his empirical claims, Jaynes’ theory is more cutting edge insofar as he looks at consciousness as being developmentally dependent on certain metaphorical capacities being in place (a hot topic right now in the cog sci world).
In sum, I highly recommend Soul Dust for anyone looking to get a better understanding of consciousness. But if you want an even better account of what consciousness is, how and when it evolved, and how it works, then you must do yourself a favor and read Jaynes’ magnum opus The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.