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11/29/11

Consciousness and the Soul Solved

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Even atheists have souls, Nicholas Humphrey might jest in a book both difficult and fluidly written. In Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness he believes the soul can be explained along with the hard problem of consciousness.
The hard problem can be posed in questions such as, Where is consciousness? Does it exist? How can it arise from brain neurons?

In exploring the hard problem, neuroscientists Francis Crick and Christof Koch, among others, have discussed sensations such as “the redness of red” and the difficulty of explaining the sensation with neuroscience. A color-blind person could make a life's career out of studying and researching the phenomena of color but at the end of her life could she appreciate what it is really like to see red? Because she still couldn't appreciate the color would she argue that consciousness merely produces the illusion of seeing red? That is, would she say the color is merely a certain wave length on the spectrum of light?

The problem of consciousness is rather like the problem of free will. We cannot act without thinking we do it of our own volition but some scientific evidence indicates otherwise. Consciousness also presents difficulties. For each of us, our consciousness does not seem contained by our skulls, nor does it know boundaries. It seems spacious. For these reasons, we have difficulty thinking of it in terms of matter.  Humphrey claims to have solved the hard problem of consciousness. He also says consciousness paves the way for the soul, or spirituality, "by creating a 'self-made show' that 'lights up the world for us, making us feel special and transcendent.' Consciousness and the soul are one and the same."  Because the word soul is weighed by baggage he trims it down, claiming that because the individual sense of specialness was chosen by natural selection it must somehow be useful, or emergent from something else that is. We need to develop new concepts to understand it, although he admits he is unsure what they should be.

As Mary Midgley explains him in her review of the book, Humphrey defines consciousness as an "extra intensity of feeling characteristic of human beings." Midgley won't go any further and says it is "all unconvincing." As for the soul, she explains Humphrey this way: "Consciousness has evolved in order to make our lives more exciting, thus giving us a soul, which stirs us to extra efforts that improve our survival prospects."

Humphrey seems to share with Daniel Dennett the same bifurcal approach. On the one hand, it is neurons all the way down because consciousness developed through natural selection and evolution. On the other, we are still lucky to be invested with the seeming magic. Humphrey argues that the "magical show in our own heads which enchants the world is what makes life worth living: 'For a phenomenally conscious creature, simply being there is a cause for celebration'."

Humphrey interestingly discusses the linkage between consciousness, perception, and sensation.  He realized that perception can occur without sensation--seeing without knowing you can see. (See Mind Shadows on Graham Young and Blind Sight.) He spent seven years working with a monkey whose visual cortex was removed. "When I first met her she was completely blind. I spent the next seven years teaching her to see again. . . . I teased her into thinking that she could see. She began to use a part of the brain that we all have (in the mid-brain visual system) but don’t use and don’t know much about. If you had seen her walking about you would have thought she was completely normal. However, when she was upset she would lose it and blunder around the room. She didn’t know she could see." The book can be found here.
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