Sunday, May 22, 2011

'Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness' by Nicholas Humphrey - a Revelation or Just an Academic Suspension of Disbeliefs?

Had I been educated as a theoretical psychologist instead of a writer, graphic designer and advertising guy, I might have come to have used the word 'consciousness' to describe the end result of what I have designated as A Suspension of Disbeliefs, the title of this blog. No matter. In any case it turns out that my thesis, that we all create realities that are essentially states of suspended disbelief by our choices of religion, political persuasion, career, country, love, belief or not in the magic bullet theory, or choice of architecture' is paralleled by Nicholas Humphrey, emeritus professor of psychology at the London School of Finance, in his new book, 'Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness'. Combining theories in neuroscience and evolutionary psychology, he argues,"consciousness, is nothing less than a magical-mystery show that we stage for ourselves inside our own heads - this self-made show lights up the world for us, making us feel special and transcendent - or by my description, consciousness is just the result of our own little suspensions of disbeliefs.

In the New York Times, Alison Gopnik, illuminates Humphrey when he says, “The bottom line about how consciousness changes the human outlook — as deep an existential truth as anyone could ask for — is this: We do not want to be zombies,” he writes. We like ‘being present,’ we like having it ‘be like something to be me.' " Humphrey ingeniously works out the many consequences of this apparently simple fact. He points out, for example, that we humans will work as hard to get a newer or more vivid or more intense experience as we will to get a meal or a mate. Almost as soon as we could use tools to make hearths and spears, we also used them to construct consciousness-­expanding art installations in painted caves like Altamira. But this grand desire to be fascinated with life and continued learning and creation also comes along with a very human fear of death, not because it means the end of our body but because it means the end of our consciousness — "better to be a spirit in heaven than a zombie on earth." So essentially, consciousness is a show we stage for ourselves - a show that keeps us alive and potentially happy.

The origin of the modern concept of consciousness is often attributed to John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding, published in 1690. Locke explicitly defined consciousness as “the perception of what passes in a man’s own mind". The earliest English language uses of "conscious" and "consciousness" date back, to the 1500s. The English word "conscious" originally derived from the Latin conscius (con- "together" + scire "to know"), but the Latin word did not have the same meaning as our word — it meant knowing with, or having joint or common knowledge with another - not the same as Locke's more singular explanation of knowing oneself. But where Humphrey's theory seems to break with ideas of the past that consciousness was simply a passive state of being and being aware of being, is that he surmises that we actively choose to write whatever drama it is that we ascribe to the concept of being. And we like being us!

Of course, to have a conscience, to have consciousness of ones own mind and to be physically conscious are all different in relation to the science from which they are derived - Conscience as a philosophical concept (right & wrong), consciousness in a psychological sense (self awareness) and conscious in a medical/neurobiological sense (brain functioning). Many philosophers have argued that consciousness is a unitary concept that is understood intuitively by the majority of people in spite of the difficulty in defining it. Others, though, have argued that the level of disagreement about the meaning of the word indicates that it is an umbrella term meaning different things to different people. And then there are the spiritual definitions of achieving consciousness - But Humphrey argues that our quest to live, love and learn is the result of a benign evolutionary illusion. Something ineffable - too extreme for words. It does feel good to be alive, and it feels especially good to be me being alive. And that in turn makes us go to great lengths to extend our lives and to fend off death. Similarly, we are most vividly conscious of the unexpected and the novel — consciousness is linked to curiosity and exploration. So, Humphrey argues, the thirst for consciousness keeps us on the move, reveling in new information even when the immediate usefulness of that information isn’t apparent. In the long run, though, pursuing new information does give us important and distinctively human evolutionary advantages. - So maintaining an active and positive suspension of disbeliefs about the world around us is a good thing. According to Nicholas Humphrey biology, psychology and neurobiology all combine to drive us to be more happy, more creative and more curious about life, because it's our life.

It's good that a theoretical psychologist of considerable world-renown and a blog writing advertising guy in Vietnam can agree on something. Of course, it will take years for many other scientists to go about proving or disproving Humphrey's hypothesis - so in the meantime, I hope A Suspension of Disbeliefs becomes a place for all of us to write the best possible script we can for ourselves - and find Humphrey's magic of consciousness in that.

D a v i d E v e r i t t - C a r l s o n
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D a v i d E v e r i t t - C a r l s o n
Find me on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn. Read my previous blog: The Wild Wild East Dailies.