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Soul DustReview - Soul Dust
The Magic of Consciousness
by Nicholas Humphrey
Princeton University Press, 2011
Review by Joel Parthemore
Dec 13th 2011 (Volume 15, Issue 50)

You signed up to be there indefinitely. And maybe nothing hits you harder than the realization that one day you will not be able to (p. 96).

I like a good ending.

That includes for life itself, including my own life: something that Nicholas Humphrey thinks, as a general rule at least, should not be true. I am meant, on his account, to be terrified of oblivion: of non-existence. It is true that, when I was forcibly introduced to the nature of death at the age of seven, and with it the idea that everybody dies, I became obsessed for some years -- even terrified -- with the prospect that one of these days would be different from all the other days, because it would be my last (and I might not even know it).

At some point, though, I came to the conclusion that what really bothered me about death was not death itself but all the messy things that often accompany it: loss of mental acuity, final illnesses, chronic pain, and so on. Indeed, I decided that I did not know how to be terrified of non-existence: the concept was and is too abstract for me. Perhaps I am not sufficiently imaginative. What did terrify me was the possibility of life without ending, because that was something I figured I could understand: a life that went on (and on, and on, and on) regardless of whether it had any meaning or not, like a broken record or a novel or non-fiction work without any ending. To borrow a line from Quentin Crisp (among others), I would not wish eternal life on my worst enemies.

…Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to my main concern with Humphrey's book (besides its lack, for me, of a satisfying ending!): its critical dependence, throughout, on intuitions I (and, perhaps, some other of his readers) do not happen to share. When Humphrey writes "the bigger problem is that the prospect of death threatens to take away the beauty of life even as you live it -- because it strips life of meaning" (169), some of us think that the prospect of death is precisely  what gives life meaning -- what gives our lives meaning -- even that life and death have no meaning apart from each other. (To be fair, Humphrey allows this strategy, but he considers it a cheat, a spirited attempt to fool ourselves.)

Not only does Humphrey consider the thirst for immortality natural, he sees it as one of the principal driving forces behind organized religion. What is one then to make of religions -- such as, to the best of my knowledge, Judaism historically -- which do not place much emphasis on an afterlife? Sheol is there, of course, but more like a place holder than an object of any serious concern. I got the curious feeling throughout Soul Dust that not only were the arguments driven primarily by intuitions, but those intuitions were of a distinctly Anglo-American variety, with all the pervasive cultural and intellectual influence of Christianity in the Anglo-American world.

A number of other things struck me as curious. Soul Dust is meant as a scientific work, but not only does it eschew the usual scientific writing style (which is fine: it's very readable, even for the layperson!); it's remarkably light on the empirical detail and heavy on the "just obvious" insights. Humphrey is a psychologist of well-deserved renown; but Soul Dust is primarily a work of armchair philosophy, something that even many of us philosophers are uneasy about. And taken as a work of philosophy, Soul Dust is not, for me, persuasive -- never mind, as Humphrey clearly intends it to be, revolutionary.

Soul Dust starts from the "unenchanted" world of science and attempts to fit into that the "enchanted" world of human consciousness. But for at least some of us in the phenomenological tradition, that is going the wrong way around: one should rather start from the experiential lifeworld (to borrow Husserl's term) and only then try to explain how the world around us comes to be (or at any rate seem to us) cognitively, conceptually, consciously unenchanted. On such a view, the study of conceptual thought and of consciousness remind the scientist and the philosopher of what they should have remembered all along: that the observer is always present in the observation, that the subjective is inseparably bound up with the objective, that science yields up not timeless understandings freed from cultural and historical contexts but working hypotheses.

Viewed in Humphrey's direction -- from unenchanted world to enchanted consciousness -- the hard problem of consciousness (Chalmers' phrase) really is hard: "the problem is hard because such feelings appear to us, who are the subjects of them, to have properties that could not possibly be conjured out of matter alone. We say -- because we do not know what else to say -- that 'it's like something' to be conscious. Yet the problem with this inadequate phrase… is that what it is like … is unlike anything else out there in the material world" (p. 4). Viewed the phenomenologist's way around, the hard problem is only hard because of the inevitable limitations of human perspective and understanding. Yes, logically lack of consciousness preceded consciousness in evolution; but consciousness is not something one can just (even by clever tricks) set aside. Consciousness is, by no means, ineffable to such a phenomenologist; but it will never be fully "effable", either. Why should one expect that it would be?

For all his efforts to break new ground, Humphrey is -- at least to the phenomenologically or (a related school of philosophy) enactively inclined -- remarkably traditional and cognitivist in his approach, describing the mind and the brain (he takes the former to be readily reducible to the latter) as input/output mechanisms along the lines of the SMPA (sense -- motivate -- plan -- act) model. The enactivist, by contrast, stresses the interaction between agent and environment and their co-creation out of that interaction: the relevant causality is not linear but circular.

I find Humphrey's take on Chalmers' philosophical zombies quite revealing. Philosophical zombies are physically and behaviourally identical to human beings. Indeed, they are like conscious human beings in every observable respect save that they lack consciousness: "no one is home". Humphrey considers them inconceivable: which is to say, logically impossible. In contrast he considers what he calls psychological zombies to be quite plausible. Psychological zombies are physically different from human beings in one key aspect: they lack the neural circuitry coding for consciousness.

I, myself, find philosophical zombies to be conceivable (not logically incoherent), even while I don't think they can do the work Chalmers wants them to (disprove some version of physicalism) -- in short, because I think conceivability is a far weaker proof of anything than most people give it credit. I can even do this as, like Humphrey, a card-carrying physicalist; because, unlike Humphrey, I do not consider the only relevant physical differences to necessarily be physically localizable ones, bound by body or brain. Indeed -- again unlike Humphrey --  I am inclined toward a version of Andy Clark's extended mind hypothesis, according to which the mind extends, in some substantive sense, beyond the boundaries "of skin and skull".

The question is not, whether a zombie would have his own list of favorites.  Of course he would….  The question, rather, is, whether a zombie's list of favorites would be nearly as long (p. 109).

On the other hand, I struggle with Humphrey's psychological zombies, whose cognition is quite unhampered by their lack of consciousness. Humphrey says of his psychological-zombie Andromedan scientist, "I see no reason, as of now, why it [her lack of consciousness] should place any limits on her intelligence… or her skills at scientific research" (p. 9). The reflective capacities that mark human consciousness -- the possibility of thoughts about thoughts and thoughts about thoughts about thoughts -- seem, to me, a critical aspect of what makes human intelligence and scientific thinking what they are.  Consciousness, in other words, does far more than give an extra "what it's like" feeling to the world. A zombie, to me, would have no "list of favorites" at all.

I could quibble with what Humphrey has to say about physicalism (I do not think we have so clear of an idea of the physical as he and many others seem to think we do) or naturalism (by which I think he means that science can offer a complete and consistent account of phenomena like consciousness -- something I do not take as at all obvious). I am fairly sure I have a different understanding of what it means to be an individual human being and of the "obviousness" of "purely private mental states" (p. 13).

However, let me close with some thoughts about Penrose triangles, whose analogy to consciousness is so central to Humphrey's argument. They are visually seductive and, at the same time, as Humphrey is keen to point out, logically impossible. Yet -- like Klein bottles -- Penrose triangles are only impossible in three spatial dimensions. Add a fourth spatial dimension, perpendicular to the first three, and something like a Penrose triangle becomes very much possible -- if humanly impossible to visualize in all its four-dimensional wonder. Perhaps the full account of consciousness is the same way. This is not to say there is not a great deal more we can learn about it -- only that we should not be too surprised if we cannot fit the whole story into our heads.

Escher triangle

 

© 2011 Joel Parthemore

 

 

Joel Parthemore successfully defended his thesis, on theories of concepts (within philosophy of mind), in March.  His particular focus of attention was Peter Gärdenfors' conceptual spaces theory.  He is currently employed as a postdoctoral researcher by the Centre for Cognitive Semiotics at the University of Lund in Sweden, exploring the relationship between concepts, representations, and language.  In his spare time, he plays with Linux systems and goes cycling.


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Metapsychology Online Reviews
ISSN 1931-5716