23 February 2011


Nicholas Humphrey. Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness. Quercus, 2011.

One the great mysteries of neuroscience is the so called hard problem of consciousness, just how can patterns of electrical and chemical activity in a brain generate actual experience. It is one which has led a good number of workers in this field to hold up their hands in surrender and argue it is a question which can never be answered.
Nicholas Humphrey, a theoretical psychologist at Cambridge, will have none of this and suggests how consciousness might develop. He does this through analogies with visual illusions such as the impossible triangle. (Examples here: LINK)

Consciousness then has to be seen as a kind of illusion, which appears mysterious from certain viewpoints, though he suggests this may be a mathematical rather than a physical illusion. He goes on to argue that consciousness is probably associated with certain neurological circuits or activity, which could even be detected by a sufficiently advanced alien (or perhaps better automaton) which had never experienced consciousness.

I am not sure that this kind of specificity can be true, because surely there would occasionally be people who have damage in such a circuit, who would otherwise be seemingly alert but have no conscious experiences, not something that has ever been encountered outside of horror films.

Humphrey goes on to argue that consciousness arose, perhaps in reptilian ancestors of birds and mammals, as a sort of added extra, giving a sense of a desire to live and experience the world, which aided survival. This strikes me as a little precious really. It seems more logical to assume that consciousness developed because the ability to experience the world, to feel pain and pleasure, warmth and cold, gives the added incentive to avoid danger and seek out food and mates. Perhaps my non-scientific gut instinct is to suggest that it is difficult to think that anything that goes scurrying around and has some sort of nervous system doesn't have at least some form of proto-proto-consciousness.

In the later sections of the book Humphrey deals with fully human consciousness, and suggests to understand its full ramifications one needs to turn to poets, artists and mystics rather than scientists. One of the features of truly human consciousness which Humphrey thinks other animals do not possess, is awareness of the permanence of death and knowledge and fear of their own mortality. This Humphrey suggests is the driving force for the belief in life after death.

He argues that this belief was bolstered by the experience of dreams, to which one may add the sorts of anomalous personal experiences which are used as evidence for the afterlife, or at least a transcendental but still quasi-physical 'spirit'. I am not so sure that many people spend so much time agonising about mortality as do poets and intellectuals however. Furthermore despite the alleged pressure to believe in an afterlife, many of those envisaged are not particularly attractive, except for a handful of the elite. Most people given the choice would chose a wet weekend in Margate rather than one in Hades or Sheol. I suspect much of the fear of death has less been a fear of annihilation (which cannot be experienced) but fear of various less than pleasant afterlives, with the Christian-Islamic hell being definitely at the bottom of the list. -- Peter Rogerson

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous25.2.11

    ...and Buddhist Hell: http://www.flickr.com/photos/doctorow/41367930/in/photostream/