Monday, January 9, 2012

Framing and Responsibility in Consciousness Studies: a review of Nicholas Humphrey's Soul Dust: the Magic of Consciousness

The first book I read of Nicholas Humphrey's was The Mind's I, a short, cutesy book on the evolution of intelligence. There were little cartoon men that made complementary, cliff-note-type points in thought bubbles, always poking their head in from the edges of the text. The cutesy makes sense; Humphrey has that clipped British tradition of economic phrasing, on full display in Dawkins and Hitchens, a kind of stylistic embrasure raised against Teutonic opacity. Soul Dust, the obligatory book about consciousness that all science popularizers eventually write toward the end of their life cycle, is no different. Like all those who write about consciousness, he is motivated by an ethical, indeed, the supreme ethical concern. As Jerry Fodor said, "If it isn't literally true that my wanting is causally responsible for my reaching and my itching is causally responsible for my scratching, and my believing is causally responsible for my saying... If none of that is literally true, then practically everything I believe about anything is false and it's the end of the world."

Author Nicholas Humphrey

A lot of scientists seem to dimly understand this; turning toward emergence and top-down causality the way autotrophs obliquely turn to capture light. An awareness has also been impressed of the Hard Problem - the problem of WHY something feels, not just the way it does, but at why it feels at ALL. Humphrey explains the Hard Problem, followed by: "I will make a proposal as to what the thing in the brain that the subject represents as 'being like something' really is, and I will suggest what its biological origins in nonconscious animals may have been." In other words, what the book promises, over and over again, is a Theory of Consciousness. And that theory of consciousness is... "Consciousness is a self-created entertainment for the mind." Of course, that's not really a theory, but this is quickly followed by "I may say I have some hopes for this theory, once we have properly fleshed it out."

Humphrey's "theory" is that consciousness is a magic trick that the brain plays, where somehow, from one perspective, the trick seems impossible (the audience) but from another perspective (the magician) the trick is obvious. Note of course, that this is a metaphor, not a theory. He just describes the Cartesian Theater and then declares: and the brain does it! This doesn't seem to stop Humphrey. If you think I'm oversimplifying, see: "Consciousness is a magical mystery show that you lay on for yourself." You know how some books like The Tipping Point are really a New York Times article stretched into an entire book? Well, Soul Dust is a single metaphor stretched into an entire book. Not only that, but the metaphor is a dangerous one. The Cartesian Theater is something that people have at least nominally tried to avoid, especially since Consciousness Explained by Dan Dennett (in which consciousness, notably, was not explained).

Humphrey's theory also seems to indicate that consciousness is an attractor, a particular kind of mathematical description of a dynamic process (time devoted: 4 pages), but it's unclear how this integrates at all into the "magic show," besides that attractors have basins of attraction and the cyclopean aperture of perception (not his words, I mentioned that curt British thing, right?) seems kind of like a basin looking out at... the mathematical phase-space? The world? I don't know, the metaphors don't really cohere. Humphrey seems to have written the entire book in a stream of unadulterated thought, as he writes: "I did not expect our discussion to lead so soon to Plato's metaphysics" after a loose description of Plato's Cave. That's certainly forgivable, and could even be charming, if the philosophical ideas had some kind of maturity, or even self-awareness. Humphrey feels free to use sentences like "We have argued that [consciousness] is based on a contrived illusion ... which... has been designed to appear to the subject to have surreal phenomenal properties." To appear to the subject. As usual, another Theory of Consciousness that presumes what it seeks to explain. Unfortunately, Humphrey was apparently never told that anything can be proved by analogy. Consciousness is like a visual illusion seen from one perspective, but really is something different from another perspective. Of course, the problem is how we have perspectives in the first place. The issue with using analogies and metaphors is that consciousness itself always ends up being a necessary component, a priori and existent to begin with. As Julian Jaynes argued, consciousness is the very domain of metaphor, but there are no metaphors for the domain itself.

Alright, so there are some bad books written on consciousness, why exactly does this matter? Of course, the book jacket has praise from V.S. Ramachandran and Owen Flanagan - big names in the field, so it seems to act as a barometer as to what is acceptable to present to the public in consciousness studies. The real problem is the title: Soul Dust. Humphrey wants to say something about meaning, about life and death, about how to live your life. This debate matters. Thinking about consciousness as a magic trick, a preformed and forced metaphor, has consequences for the average reader. Humphrey assumes what he seeks to prove, that consciousness is a "magical mystery show." Anyone reading this book is going to have that impressed upon them (especially as it is repeated over and over again), and it's the wrong impression. That Grand Theory of Consciousness that we're all waiting for, it has consequences. This kind of dilettante public framing is irresponsible. Using a metaphor of genes being selfish was a brilliant framing job by Dawkins, but it's been shown to be wrong again and again, and it's only in the public sphere that evolutionary biology resembles the evolutionary biology portrayed in The Selfish Gene. And the Intelligent Design movement is fueled by recriminations that respond to that particular metaphor. Maybe Humphrey doesn't realize that people actually read this stuff, they pick it up off of bookshelves and get their Amazon alerts and sit down and read his book and their conception of the universe can be changed and shaped by his metaphors. Maybe he forgets that not everyone can whip out Ryle's Regress to easily combat his claims, but assume instead that a professional scientist has credible reasons for saying what he's saying. And to those folks, it's the end of the world. 

Center for Sleep and Consciousness, University of Madison, WI

Want to cite this post?
Hoel, E.P. (2012). Framing and Responsibility in Consciousness Studies: a review of Nicholas Humphrey's Soul Dust: the Magic of Consciousness. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from

Dennett, D. 1991 Consciousness Explained. Little Brown and Co., Boston.
Fodor, J. A Theory of Content and Other Essays. Cambridge, MA, Bradford Book/MIT Press, 1990. Humphrey, N. 2011. Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness. Princeton University Press, NJ. Jaynes, J. 1976 The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Mifflin/Mariner Books.


Riley Zeller-Townson said...

A very well written and informative post! Thanks!

Although I'm not sure if I agree that providing a poorly constructed Cartesian Theater view of consciousness would be the end of the world for some set of readers. I suppose mainly as I don't find the Cartesian theater view to be without value, myself. Yes, it doesn't explain everything, and it becomes ridiculous when you make an infinite regression of theaters out of it. However, if you take it only at face value, it becomes the hypothesis that 1) not every part of the brain is part of the conscious mind (there is a 'projector' and there is an 'observer' section) and 2) somewhere there is a structure within the brain that has access to all the information that the conscious mind has access to (without supposing anything else on the nature of this 'observer' region). I guess I'm not certain how either of those ideas could spell the end of the world for anyone. Unless your point is more that any "theory" that claims to solve the hard problem is capable of doing so.

Pete, the Shanghairoller said...

Woe betide the lazy scholar who fails to impress Erik Hoel! A sizzling review. Very enjoyable.

Incidentally, it's interesting to consider "pages" as a measure of "time". Within a given book, this seems valid from the reader's point of view. Dickens rolls along at ninety seconds a page, Tom Clancy at nine seconds, etc. But an author may toil for weeks on a single paragraph (or days on a sentence, a la Joyce). And what if the writer reads his own work?

I hope you continue to review all kinds of writing, and to produce your own.

David Nicholson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David Nicholson said...

...something ungrammatical so he's reposting. Finally, an entire book about an item from that World of Warcraft videogame. This review was pretty scathing. It's brave of you to attack what Ramachandran calls "the best-yet solution to the supposedly insuperable problem" of consciousness. (I agree with Riley that Descartes' solution was okay, but he wrote it in Latin or French or some other language that normal people don't speak.) I take it you'd like to have seen a sort of book-length review with more empirical evidence. That's what I'd want to read, but when it comes to must-cite experiments, what comes to my mind are those from Libet's group(and I couldn't even remember his name off the top of my head). Gazzaniga is an obvious reference, too. Beyond that, I'm not sure. Who would you cite (besides yourself)?