Ashes to Ashes

REVIEW: Soul Dust by Nicholas Humphrey (Princeton University Press, $24.95)

British psychologist Nicolas Humphrey’s Soul Dust is a work of pure theory.  The author fashioned it to be an earth-shattering book, or “the book that shows the fly the way out of the fly bottle.”  But the earth is quite a massive planet, not easily shattered.  And its shattering would have to be a matter of hard facts, because the fact is that words hardly matter.  I do not want to write about what Soul Dust is not, though.  Humphrey’s hubris and pretension have motivated him to craft a deep and reflective work full of good ideas.  It is a celebration of consciousness.  Because as the Bible says: “(Soul)dust thou art, and unto (soul)dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).  While we are here we ought to recognize our special experience.

Humphrey does unfold a logical argument: that consciousness is “the product of a highly improbable bit of biological engineering: a wonderful artwork of nature that gives rise to all sorts of mysterious impressions in our minds, yet something that has a relatively straightforward physical explanation.”  He is an ardent materialist who insists that miracles do not happen. When conscious experience arises in a person’s mind, it is the outcome of events in the brain.  This bedrock tenet has anchored the exploration of many neuroscientists such as Giulio Tononi and Christof Koch.  They provide data; Humphrey aims to provide direction.

Why did we evolve to be conscious?  Humphrey writes: “We can be sure it did not happen accidentally.  It must be the result of natural selection favoring genes that underwrite the specialized neural circuits—whatever they actually are—that sustain the illusion of qualia, giving rise to the magical mystery show for the first person.  And it is axiomatic that this will have happened only if those lucky enough to be spectators of this show have somehow been at an advantage in terms of biological survival compared with their less fortunate cousins.”  Unfortunately for hungry theorists, there is no substantial evidence of consciousness in the fossil record.

Nicholas Humphrey

Brains—ashes to ashes—are perishable as we are.  We usually examine language or art, emergent properties of consciousness—which is itself an emergent property of the brain.  Skull size cannot really tell this story.  The truth about the evolution of consciousness may prove impossible to prove.  Humphrey’s theory is suggests that at some point existing sensory feedback loops were adjusted to give rise to phenomenal states.  Who knows?  Perhaps this can be investigated, perhaps not.  The words are not yet full of meaning.

Humphrey dedicates a the second part of his book to the importance of consciousness.  “I think that what the natural history reveals is that consciousness,” he writes, “makes life more worth living.”  Consciousness gives us ego, an illusion that motivates us to strive throughout life, despite death.  Consciousness gives us “the pleasures of being there as who you are and are becoming.”  Humphrey is most comfortable and convincing in this psychological realm.  His main point about science is to look at the problem of consciousness, magic trick that it is, from a different perspective.  Although he leaves that work for the scientists, Humphrey has done a service for our epistemology.  There must be dual foci—micro and meta—in order to solve difficult problems.  It was a pleasure to engage with the book Soul Dust, just as it is a pleasure to peel and eat a ripe orange or meet a beautiful smiling dog.  Open your eyes, open a book, but somehow, however, never ever forget:  This is awesome.

About the author

Ben Ehrlich

Ben Ehrlich's new book "The Dreams of Santiago Ramón y Cajal" will be published by Oxford University Press in 2016. Ben is a 2015 Salzburg Global Seminar fellow in Neuroscience and Art.

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