The Nature of Consciousness

Nicholas Humphrey, the theoretical psychologist, has a new book out, Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness, which deals with the problem of the nature of consciousness.
The use of the word magic in the book’s subtitle – rather than the word nature – is a little worrying (but then maybe it’s there in order to draw in a particular audience). The word magic implies a mystery. The mystery is “What is this immaterial thing called consciousness? How can something as insubstantial as consciousness reside in a world of crude and brute physicality?”

The answer, as Galen Strawson, professor of philosophy at the University of Reading, suggests in his review of the book in the Observer newspaper, is that there probably is no mystery. The problem lies in the false way that we tend to conceive of the physical, material world. We have a tendency, even today, to view the corporeal world in basic Newtonian terms, as being composed of lumps of matter interacting with each other. Matter is solid, reliable, familiar stuff, and therefore holding little mystery itself. That, as Professor Strawson puts it (and as I concur) is the Great Mistake. Matter is in fact as weird as it comes.
At its most basic level matter is probably hardly anything more that fluctuations, inconsistencies or disturbances in some inconceivable, insubstantial quality that occupies some incomprehensible base level of reality – and even describing it in those terms is giving it more physicality than is probably advisable. In a universe in which matter is such an ungraspably ethereal entity it seems less bizarre that something as physically insubstantial as consciousness can exist. Despite appearances, there are not two realms of existence, the physical realm in which the body exists and another metaphysical realm in which the mind, soul and/or consciousness reside. They are all in one and the same slightly weird place. Here.

I feel that one of the reasons why we have difficulty wrestling with the subject of consciousness is that the phenomenon of consciousness is often elevated to a level of significance greater than it really deserves. Consciousness is frequently given a semi-spiritual dimension (largely because it seems to be on a level that’s separate to that of base physicality). I suspect that the truth is that consciousness is really little more than the effect that we experience when the sensations from our various senses are drawn together and are packaged with our thought processes (the purpose of which is largely to help us to navigate the world and to survive in it).
Indeed, the strange nature of our senses perhaps gives us a clue to the nature of consciousness itself. Look at it this way. There’s a computer screen in front of you right now, on which you’re reading this. The screen is ‘out there’ in the real, physical world, but the thing that you actually experience is a construction in your brain (I was going to use the word projection there rather than construction, but that gives too much of the suggestion of a cinema screen in your head with a ‘real’ image on it, which is a gross oversimplification of the multifarious processes at work in producing the image). What’s more, you’ll notice that the computer screen in front of you, and the rest of the world around you when you manage to drag yourself away from your computer, is full of colour. That colour is not a quality that exists in the objects that you see around you. You have added it to the reconstructions of the objects in your head, assigning colours to objects dependant on the wavelengths of light that their surfaces reflect. For instance if a surface reflects wavelengths of 510 nanometres you apply the colour green to it. It’s a form of mental painting by numbers.
So it is that the sensation of the world that we experience with our brains seems physically real, but is in fact only so at the level of the internal workings of the brain. Similarly, the sensation of consciousness that we experience with our brains seems physically unreal in very much the same way. But it is as much a part of the real world as our sensation of vision.
Consciousness is probably no more on a separate level of existence than is the view that we have of the world when we look out of our eyes
Boring, and therefore probably true.

The subject of this post is dealt with in greater depth in my book, Where Are We, What Are We, Why Are We?

This post was prompted by the review in the Observer newspaper of the book Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness by the theoretical psychologist Nicholas Humphrey. The review was written by Galen Strawson, professor of philosophy at the University of Reading.


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