Thursday, February 07, 2008

Nicholas Humphrey on consciousness...

I have always admired Nicholas Humphrey's perspectives on sensing and consciousness, and referenced his ideas on evolution of the nervous system in my Biology of Mind book. He has now written a nice essay in Seed Magazine, and I strongly recommend that you read it. He argues against the idea:
...that consciousness must be helping us do something that we can do only by virtue of being conscious, in the way that, say, a bird can fly only because it has wings, or you can understand this sentence only because you know English.
...I want to suggest the role of phenomenal consciousness may not be like this at all. Its role may not be to enable us to do something we could not do otherwise, but rather to encourage us to do something we would not do otherwise: to make us take an interest in things that otherwise would not interest us, or to mind things we otherwise would not mind, or to set ourselves goals we otherwise would not set.

I will not hold back from telling you my own main conclusion from a lifetime's interest in what consciousness does. I may shock you by what may seem the naivety of my conclusion (I've shocked myself): I think the plain and simple fact is that consciousness—on various levels—makes life more worth living.

We like being phenomenally conscious. We like the world in which we're phenomenally conscious. We like ourselves for being phenomenally conscious. And the resulting joie de vivre, the enchantment with the world we live in, and the enhanced sense of our own metaphysical importance have, in the course of evolutionary history, turned our lives around.

Added note 11/16/08: I just found a later published version of this article. PDF here.


  1. dang, just as i was about to turn it off for the day, this post of yours hits...

    so, off to seed magazine to read the article...

    but already i know his knowledge is partial, because what the "i" is, is consciousness, all the rest is the filter set...

    will comment again later

  2. i was totally appalled by that article, from first paragraph to last, what a quisling, he will do everything, contort himself as far as possible, to avoid admitting he is looking in the wrong direction. i actually couldn't believe it, about on par with colon powell five years ago, or george bush at any time, and unbelievable distortion of reality, all in the name of science.

    way, way too many ridiculous things to note here, would have to write an entire article, and maybe i should.

    consciousness doesn't come from meat, crikey, cannot believe how ignorant that is, caveman stuff, and so how he had to stretch to fit in his presuppostions just because cant see the first step.

    am almost angry that such a world-view is being pushed down people's throats as "science". barbarous

  3. Anonymous2:10 PM

    Wow, Humphrey gets more brilliant in every paragraph. Thanks Deric, gems like that are why I read.

    gregory: but what if nicholas is right?

  4. i printed up the article and passed it to some mystic friends here in india, most with scientific training, though not to the degree of deric, and with many years of spiritual practice under their belts.... and it was simply laughed at.... the word "childish" was used more than once to describe the author's understanding.

    i have read it a half dozen times now, trying to understand how he thinks, and cannot fathom it...

    from the first paragraph, he refuses to look at the principles underlying his assumptions with a critical eye. his quoted philosopher colin mcginn indicates the mystery, and his number two quoted philosopher indicates the magnitude of the changes in basic concepts that are going to be required to understand is going to be unsettling, but the author blows right by it and blithely comes up with enough contortions to conclude that consciousness makes life worth living... wow

    jesus effing christ.... if that is scientific, or even logical, i cannot see it.

    first thing i would do is have him visit some dead people. the material substances are all there just after dying, so why aren't they producing consciousness? if they ever were?

    but that aside, here is how it is, let science wrap around reality, rather than trying to wrap reality around itself.... matter is a condensation of consciousness, from subtle to increasingly gross material form. just because we cannot measure with instruments subtle energy doesn't mean it doesn't exist, it is called chi or prana or shakti or life force, and is the basis of many disciplines in the world, and is felt by millions. rupert sheldrake has done work in this area, but the science establishment doesn't seem to like it, they prefer stuff that can get funded and maybe even lead to an ipo or at least public acclaim.

    sorry, i should watch my tone. and as for tone, this article most reminded me of the contortions of fundamental christians espousing their creationisms, it felt equally dogmatic, and equally blind.

    sure, there is a lot of work to do, distinguishing awareness from consciousness is one, understanding the difference between brain and mind is another. it seems to me that addiction to science as it is currently defined is not up to the task, one reason being that it is so dependent on quantification, particularization, and simply cannot understand whole systems... it needs to break it down.... that is the wrong thing to do with consciousness, which is wholeness itself, and the groundstate upon which both the seeker and the sought do their dance.

    deric, it would be convenient to stimulate discussion, if you could add the box to be checked that says please notify me of follow-up comments... it is a blogspot feature, and i think blogger too

    thanks for all of your efforts in this blog, it is indeed a great thing. i have some intelligence, studied engineering, but have not the training to understand it all... it often tells me about the delimiting boundaries of science, which is seeming narrower and narrower the more i learn about life.

    ok, that is all today... enjoy, gregory