Nicholas Humphrey, professor of psychology at The London School Of Economics, is a leading investigator of what philosopher David Chalmers dubbed the “hard problem” of consciousness. His Recent book Soul Dust approaches the second part of the Hard Problem: why human beings have consciousness, and why consciousness should have evolved at all. It is an excellent read for anyone interested in philosophy of mind and the evolution of the brain.
While there have been many attempts to get at what consciousness is (or what consciousness is like, see PEL episode 21), the goal of Soul Dust is describing why consciousness is evolutionarily advantageous--or, more exactly, why natural selection has led to creatures with the remarkable quality of being phenomenally conscious. It is an interesting question given that being conscious (not to be confused with being intelligent) does not seem to grant any survival skills. As Jerry Fodor famously asked "What mental processes can be performed only because the mind is conscious, and what does consciousness contribute to their performance? Why then did God bother to make consciousness?"
Humphrey’s solution is not terribly complex. Consciousness, he claims, does not add or enhance some survival ability (as, say, wings allow birds to fly). Consciousness improves the chance of survival because it makes life worth living. Being phenomenally conscious grants import, meaning, and ego, essentially fooling us into striving towards fulfillment. Humphrey makes this point by quoting several artists, writers, and theologians, such as Oscar Wilde: “The aim of life is self development. To realize one's nature perfectly - that is what each of us is here for. To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.” Quoting Thomas Nagel, Humphrey points out the strange fact that “There are elements which, if added to one’s experience, make life better; there are other elements which, if added to one’s experience make life worse. But what remains when these are set aside is not merely neutral: it is emphatically positive. . . The additional positive weight is supplied by experience itself, rather than by any of its contents.” To put it simply, “we accept that nature made sex pleasurable to encourage us to have more sex. Then why not make living magically delightful in order to encourage us to engage in life?”
Humphrey further argues that the desire to “experience life” has “increased our fear of death.” To quote Philip Roth, “I’m afraid of dying. . . I’m 72. What am I afraid of? . . . Oblivion. Of not being alive, quite simply, of not feeling life, not smelling it.” Consciousness fools us into believing that we are somehow individually unique and makes the experience of life, on balance, emphatically positive. It also allows us to extrapolate from the deaths of others that we are going to die and that death is the loss of all experience. This knowledge, something that nonconscious and less acutely conscious animals seem to lack, makes being alive precious and something that needs to be actively defended and improved upon, even in the absence of immediate threats.
Humphrey asserts that it is this love of being alive and omnipresent fear of death that motivates us to fight for our “honor,” “legacy” and other abstract goals that just so happen to involve a lot of resource gathering, competition, and constructive activity that will positively affect our progeny. As per Humphrey, the more beautiful and meaningful life becomes, the harder the conscious creature will fight to improve and extend its own existence. And, the harder it will work to improve the likelihood of the success of it’s offspring. Thus, being conscious is a huge evolutionary advantage and is explainable in a standard Darwinian framework.
Elsewhere in the book, Humphrey attempts to explain the how as well as the why--how consciousness developed and how it works. Much of this material is drawn from his previous work Seeing Red. But Humphrey stresses that this is the least of his goals with Soul Dust. His focus and attention is on the why. Humphrey confirms that he is on the side of Dan Dennett, Owen Flanagan, and other antidualistic thinkers who feel that neuroscience will probably answer the how in due time and that consciousness is entirely physical. His theory on the what and how is included mostly to avoid the criticism that he has totally ignored it, going so far as to say at the onset of the chapter on math and brain function that the reader can feel free to skip it entirely.
All in all, Soul Dust is a great read. It is a comparatively easy to understand text and is a convincing argument (if you are willing to be convinced that you are an animal and that there is no “soul”). For my own part, I have to say it makes a lot of sense. There are parts of life that make me want more life, and it seems this is also true for people much less fortunate than myself. If my love of say, very early mornings on Lake Mendota is a survival mechanism, it’s working.
You can find a lecture by Nicholas Humphrey summarizing the ideas of Soul Dust here:
Alan Cook says
“Being phenomenally conscious grants import, meaning, and ego”
Does Humphrey distinguish between phenomenal consciousness and self-consciousness? Some degree of phenomenal consciousness characterizes organisms pretty far down the evolutionary scale, and I have I hard time seeing how the phenomenal consciousness of, say, a lizard, grants import, meaning, and ego.
John Ludders says
Humphrey does address animal consciousness and acknowledges that animals do have a kind of consciousness. He seems to think there are “orders” of consciousness, although that may not be the best word as, for him, it is a continuum as opposed to having “levels”. But, there is a distinct human breakthrough. If my wording was confusing I apologize.
You can get a flavor of this in the video at 34:30 and more thoroughly at 42:45. He defines the human distinction at 47:20 (“self and soul”). The “import, meaning, and ego” (or at least the kind we experience) would be unique to humans, although phenomenal experience is not available only to humans. The ongoing fear of death without a change in immediate environment or pain is a major feature of that, as is the need to “live beyond our own lifespan” by, say, carving messages in rocks or naming buildings on university campuses. Also, the idea of the super-natural soul and an afterlife.
He also goes on to note that the recognition of other “selves” allows humans to create a society and care about other people in ways that go beyond immediate physical needs, which is another reason being a “self” makes our species much better at surviving. Animals do this, sort of, as penguins huddle for warmth. But the difference between warm friendly things that are not a threat that also need warmth and “Jim the weirdo and Mary the lawyer” is profound and only works because we see our own singular importance reflected in other egos.
He does not make enough use of the words “self” and “self-hood” in the book, but the idea of the singular ego-self as the aware viewpoint of all experience is the major human breakthrough. The other things are further symptoms of this, but the more intense those symptoms the better for survival.
the ontology of consciousness is affect. consciousness, like fear, caring/nurturing, lust, rage, grief, and joy is a category of emotion common to all our mammal cousins and in varying degrees all the way down to cellular experience. for us mammals, consciousness is most closely linked to the pervasive affect of SEEKING – sort of like what powder milk biscuits promote and enhance in life.
in order to evolve, DNA cannot be stuck forming creatures that automatically (non-consciously) run to or away from a certain phenomenon. we must learn to decide if something at first seeming harmful/aversive may actually be desirable. consciousness is what it feels like to be in such a decisive seeking state. well before affective neuroscience, this was described as entertainment of an affirmation-negation proposition.
John Ludders says
“in order to evolve, DNA cannot be stuck forming creatures that automatically (non-consciously) run to or away from a certain phenomenon.”
I would argue that that’s not at all obvious. Clearly it is not exactly what has happened because here we are. But in principle there is no reason that evolution should not occur with one branch of DNA or an entire species evolving into a more advanced state by only reacting to a specific thing in the same way forever. I.E. “I see a large cat thing, I run away. Well that didn’t work, I’m being eaten, but my buddy JimBob the Antelope with longer legs who runs faster is just fine. That bastard is over there chilling with his fast children while this lion eats my leg.” (That’s supposed to be humorous. There is no “I” for antelope and obviously they don’t think like that).
This particular branch of DNA / Evolution does not ever have to alter or consider it’s reaction that that stimulus to evolve. And, although I do think they have consciousness (albeit a lesser state and/or non- “self-consciousness”) it’s not obvious that this has to be the case, as Jerry Fodor noted in the quote above.
It’s good to note that I’m just stating what I Humphrey’s views are here. I agree with much of it but the article and my responses are summary and clarifications of the views taken in Soul Dust.
Billie Pritchett says
I’m intrigued by Humphrey’s thesis. I had never thought of the purpose of consciousness in those times, that is in thinking of consciousness as that which makes an agent or an organism’s life worth living. I do have a couple of questions, though. You said that he quotes various people who would attest to the thesis but what sort of additional evidence does Humphrey’s appeal to to support his thesis? Perhaps what I’m trying to get at is connected to my second question, how his answer to why consciousness exists at all connects up with his views on how consciousness exists at all, and what consciousness is. And granting Humphrey believes that we have this sense of what it’s like to be us because this allows us to love our lives, fear death, and work hard to make our lives have some sense of purpose. But doesn’t it still stand to reason to ask why *that* is the purpose and not some other? Beyond intuition, I’m having a hard time seeing how we can be confident about the thesis, and I’m very interested in understanding how the thesis accounts for counterfactuals.
john, i used the term DNA in a general sense of all DNA on earth. but i think you are completely overlooking all the other ontological points i make to see a naturalism at work w/r consciousness.
John Ludders says
So I guess I’ll start with why that is the reason. I’m going to have to defer as to what Humphrey thinks consciousness is exactly because nobody likes a several hundred word comment. I think the best way to go about that short of reading Seeing Red or Soul Dust is actually the video, the first part of which is on the “what”. It is mostly to discuss why his explanation of why can make sense, and I hope you will be charitable with the annoying cartesian theatre image. He mentions in the book he is aware of the infinite regress issue and that the image is simply metaphor.
But the reason that those things are the purpose of consciousness, as anything in a strict evolutionary framework, is that it was/is the better for survival. Sex being fun is the most obvious corollary example. The thing that like sex the most probably had the most sex and had the most offspring. So the thing that liked life the most stayed alive the longest. I realize that those are not exactly the same thing, and that if an ant loved life more than any other creature on earth it would still die fast. But it is important (he claims and I tend to agree) when coupled with intelligence and thumbs etc, and seems to be coincide with intelligence. Humphrey gives several examples of arbitrary “life enjoyment” behavior increasing with intelligence generally in non-huaman animals. So his explanation of the “why of the why” is just that it makes an animal better at living longer and making his offspring live longer. As you say that may just be intuition, but it is not baseless as that is the reason for almost everything that has ever developed in animals; fangs, wings, thumbs, or ability to build stuff.
Now to be fair the book is heavy on intuition. Much of his evidence could be considered anecdotal (for the many, many quotes from artists, monks, Woody Allen (but not his step daughter)) or simply, as you say, intuition, as in why loving life makes you want to live more etc. But given the way it is built and our understaffing of evolution it is not the worse off for being intuitive.
As an aside I’m not entirely with Humphrey in his view that Neuroscience will discover the “mind.” I’m one of those “I don’t think we will ever figure that out” people. But that is not necessary to be able to believe that the mind is a product of evolution.
One area of evidence I think he could have used, but did not, would be instances of human suicide.
John Ludders says
I guess, as a counter question, is that given the framework of evolution, would consciousness, and all it entails in us at the top of the food chain, be anything except something that makes it’s owners better at living and populating?
There are answers to that, but if you are a strict evolutionist it’s a hard question to deal with. It’s why we have everything else. So it stands to reason that consciousness, and everything that it is like to be conscious, would only be at all if it helped us stay alive and breed.
1st let me say that your combox replies demonstrate quality (and sincere) attendance to philosophical dialog. too many unanswered comboxes of PEL blog posts lead me to believe their authors are just interested in solipsistic wordsmithing.
until this morning, i had overlooked your lunked vid of h; my posts were comparing a naturalistic (non-anthropocentric) ake on consciousness. in his fine lecture, i see h is pretty much of a naturalist, also.
i do question the use of ‘worth’ as a function of consciousness. worth is less affective and more a special aesthetic derivitive of consciousness we associate with reason, which we (for the most part) uniquely possess as creatures. consciousness is primarily a creaturely necessity to move around and engage the affordance of the environment. we use reason to add to the worth of living experience – live, live well, live better.
not to seem arrogantm but i am not so sure that the ‘teleology’ of evolution is merely endurance of life. trees and turtjes outlive humans,
just some thoughts. h should be is a good study’ tho woody’s quote stole his show!
Benjamin Feddersen says
Hmm, for people who are already pretty much on board the Dennett train, is there anything valuable here besides a just-so story about evolution?
after your post, i found the following
i believe you may well have it. the what for seems intertwined in the how come of, say, consciousness.
(as an aside, i am trying to untangle my philosophical musings from the heavy whiteheadean jargon of my past. however, it is uncanny just how dennet’s concepts such as related to process, mentality, and universal patterns are instances of P&R postulations.}
Alan Cook says
Here’s another review of the book: