Review of Nicholas Humphrey's new book "Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness"

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.


Filed under Consciousness, Philosophy, Psychology

4 responses to “Review of Nicholas Humphrey's new book "Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness"

  1. Excerpt from soon to be published book on Holt and New Realism, I am playing devil’s advocate to Nicholas S. Thompson:

    Devil’s advocate: On your account, nonsocial animals don’t feel pain?

    Well, not the same sort of pain. Any creature that struggles when
    you do something to it is “paining” in some sense. But animals
    that have the potential to summon help seem to pain in a different

    Devil’s advocate: But, Nick, while “paining” sounds nice in an academic
    paper, it is just silly otherwise. The other day I felt quite nauseous after
    a meal. I am interested in what it’s like to feel nauseous, and you cannot
    honestly claim that you don’t know what feeling nauseous is
    like. Behavioral correlates aren’t at issue; stop changing the subject.

    What is “being nauseous” like? It’s like being on a small boat in a
    choppy sea, it’s like being in a world that is revolving when others see
    it as stable, it’s like being gray in the face and turning away from the
    sights and smells of food that others find attractive, it’s like having
    your head in the toilet when others have theirs in the refrigerator.
    But you have brought us to the crux of the problem. Nobody has
    ever been satisfied with my answers to these “What is it like to be
    a _______?” questions. “What is it like to be in pain? What is it like
    to be a bat? What is it like to be Nick Thompson?” Notice how the
    grammar is contorted. If you ask the question in its natural order,
    you begin to see a path to an answer. “What is being Nick Thompson
    like?” “It’s like running around like a chicken with its head cut
    off.” OK. I get that. I see me doing that. You see me doing that. But
    most people won’t be satisfied with that sort of answer, because it’s
    the same as the answer to the question, “What do people like Nick
    Thompson do?” and therefore appears to convey no information that
    is inherently private. To me, the question, “What is it like to be X?”,
    has been fully answered when you have said where X-like people can
    be found and what they will be doing there. However, I seem to be
    pretty alone in that view.

  2. Kevin O'Regan

    you might try my just published book as an alternative account of phenomenal consciousness:
    It is related to humphrey’s, but in my humble opinion, does better.

  3. Charles Eaton

    In your review of “Soul Dust”, you said that Kindle books do not show page numbers—so I decided to mention that pressing “Menu” will reveal them. Then I noted that you wrote the review in 2011—so surely you have learned that by now. However, in trying to figure out who you are (You are Gary Williams, right?), I became interested in your continuing exploration of consciousness. Like you, I feel that Julian Jaynes has not be adequately mined. I first read “The Origin of Consciousness . . .” in 1983 and was profoundly influenced by it. On the basis of reading your blog, I’m going to re-read the 1990 “Afterword” this afternoon.

    Thank you for allowing others to follow your intellectual journeys.

    Charles Eaton, PhD (age 81, by the way, and still thinking about consciousness)

    • “you said that Kindle books do not show page numbers—so I decided to mention that pressing “Menu” will reveal them.”

      I’ve owned many Kindle devices and many Kindle e-books over many years. Some e-books show page numbers and some don’t. It has nothing to do with the e-reader, but with the e-book.

      It is the responsibility of the publisher to provide page numbers or not. Many publishers don’t invest much into their e-books. Going to the effort of creating page numbers is extra cost that many publishers are unwilling to invest or else publishers are just lazy and don’t think most readers will care.

      If there is a secret way of showing page numbers for any e-book, I’d like to know how to do it. Going to “menu” doesn’t show page numbers for all e-books on any of my Kindle devices. I wish it were that easy.

      I’d like to know which Kindle device you use. If there is a Kindle device that will show page numbers for any and all e-books, I’d buy one for myself in a heartbeat. I own three different kinds of Kindle devices and none of them do what you claim your Kindle device does.

      Maybe you are just talking about this particular e-book by Nicholas Humphrey. I don’t own that e-book. I don’t know if the publisher has provided page numbers or not.

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