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The Soul Niche
February 4, 2011 2:46 AM   Subscribe

Swimming around in a mixture of language and matter, humans occupy a particular evolutionary niche mediated by something we call 'consciousness'. To Professor Nicholas Humphrey we're made up of "soul dust": "a kind of theatre... an entertainment which we put on for ourselves inside our own heads." But just as that theatre is directed by the relationship between language and matter, it is also undermined by it. It all depends how you think it.
posted by 0bvious (17 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
It sounds like he forgot to cite Philip Pullman.
posted by The Michael The at 4:08 AM on February 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


What a great couple of links! Apparently my consciousness resembles a dog chasing it's tail until it turns into pancake batter. Alas, my philosophical background, such as it is, leans toward the mystical. My experiences with astal projection were conclusive enough to me that, while perception may originate with the brain, it's not limited to it. The brain may be the main sensor array, but that still doesn't necessarily make it the crew too
posted by Redhush at 4:10 AM on February 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Sounds like rambling nonsense to me, also:
They work on computational systems which actually do the sensory "internalization" that Professor Humphrey believes is the basis of consciousness.

Neural networks on computers are able to "trap information about the world and make it useable" in the same way as our brains, says Igor Aleksander, Professor Emeritus in Neural Systems Engineering at Imperial College London.
This isn't even remotely right. Neural Networks are one way to do machine learning (and actually a neural network itself is the output of some program that actually does the learning). Most NNs that are used are much, much simpler then anything like what's in a human head, they are more like the nervous system in an ant.

Also, they're just one type of AI, there are a lot of other learning mechanisms out there that are used for different purposes.
posted by delmoi at 4:26 AM on February 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Consciousness, he argues in his book Soul Dust, is not so much about thinking, but rather the way our brain generates for itself powerful feelings, colours, sounds and smells with you at the centre.

I think (based in large part on reading Buddhist material and having my own "consciousness experiences" during an emergency room visit) that this is entirely backwards. I suspect that your brain does not so much generate "powerful feelings, colours, sounds and smells with you at the centre" as generate "you" out of "powerful feelings, colours, sounds and smells." I think the problem with finding consciousness and the self is that consciousness and the self are processes (or, actually, the result of processes) and there probably isn't any place in the brain where these things reside. It's like trying to find a movie by examining the workings of the DVD player. I have not done enough reading in neuroscience to decide if there is any experimental evidence to back up this idea; perhaps someone else can suggest a place to start.
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:32 AM on February 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


Can anyone explain how his view of consciousness has any bearing on the title of his book? Or is he just trying to con Dark Materials fans into buying it?
posted by londonmark at 5:13 AM on February 4, 2011


It's like trying to find a movie by examining the workings of the DVD player.

Only if there's no disc and the action of turning the empty DVD player on spontaneously generates the film.
posted by londonmark at 5:15 AM on February 4, 2011


An analogy I always liked: dissecting a piano in search of the music.
posted by Kandarp Von Bontee at 5:24 AM on February 4, 2011 [6 favorites]


I enjoyed Nicholas Humphrey's 'The Inner Eye' very much when I read it many years ago. He's been writing about consciousness for at least a quarter of a century now, and puts his ideas across in a very engaging way. The Guardian review just sounded like the standard dismissive hand-waving you always get whenever a philosopher is asked to review anything by a psychologist (or vice-versa, for that matter).
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 5:37 AM on February 4, 2011


Don't miss the comments section in Galen Strawson's review. Humphrey jumps in and he and Strawson get all vicious and fighty.
posted by painquale at 7:11 AM on February 4, 2011


Wow does Humphrey come across as a huge jerk in the comments for that Guardian review. Second comment in and he's already demanding a retraction.

Also that BBC article is incoherent - I have never come across any work suggesting there are 'conscious neurons', consciousness not being a property you can ascribe to single cells. It's not clear whether that assertion in the article is coming from the interviewer or from Humphrey, but it would fit with some other weird assumptions attributed to Humphrey in the article ("Scientists and philosophers have assumed all along that consciousness is somehow helping us think better, somehow improving our intelligence or our cognitive skills"? According to who?). Neither of these articles paint a very flattering picture of Humphrey or his ideas.
posted by aiglet at 7:23 AM on February 4, 2011


Yikes, that BBC article is really bad. It gives me almost no indication about what Humphrey's book is about. It's just a bunch of platitudes and falsehoods. (Who are these computer scientists Humprey is allegedly challenging who think we can already "simulate conscious neurons"? Apparently Humprey is taking on computer scientists, but this article does not tell me how.)
posted by painquale at 7:23 AM on February 4, 2011


From the BBC site:

Do you understand what consciousness is? Do you think the puzzle has been solved? Let us know via Twitter or Facebook or leave a comment using the form below.

Yeah, well, not one person "liked" my conclusive proof of the existence of the soul. So you can all go screw yourselves.
posted by PlusDistance at 7:51 AM on February 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


There is intrigue among the souls, and treachery. No worse fate can befall a man than to be surrounded by traitor souls.
posted by waterunderground at 9:15 AM on February 4, 2011


the question of what is going on in your head as you experience the screen and the life all around you has baffled so many great minds that it is known simply as "the hard problem".

Actually, explaining what is going on in your head is one of the "easy problems". The "hard problem" is trying to answer how and why conscious experience emerges from the architecture of the brain.

Wake me up when he's soleved the mind-body problem.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 11:01 AM on February 4, 2011


Curious. Strawson says that the mind-body problem isn't a problem: he seems to say that once our understanding of matter becomes perfect enough, we will be able to see how the matter of our brains easily leads to consciousness. It's a pure science problem.

And I guess I could see that: I don't know much about quantum physics, but I have read that certain particles can have effects on each other over time and space. I wonder if consciousness is really more of a social thing, and I mean physically...
posted by joecacti at 1:16 PM on February 4, 2011


Yikes, that BBC article is really bad. It gives me almost no indication about what Humphrey's book is about. It's just a bunch of platitudes and falsehoods.
It's like the archetypal bad science writing
Wow does Humphrey come across as a huge jerk in the comments for that Guardian review. Second comment in and he's already demanding a retraction.
I'd be pretty annoyed if an article like this was written about something I'd written.
posted by delmoi at 1:51 PM on February 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Great book about similar ideas: The User Illusion by Tor Norretranders.
But it takes things more the direction that GenjiandProust mentioned . . .
the notion that "consciousness" and "you" are things that the brain does, as Dawkins has said, "when the brains' simulation of the world has become complete enough to require a model of itself".
posted by pt68 at 3:07 PM on February 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


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