Review of Soul Dust by Nicholas Humphrey


Daniel C. Dennett’s 1991 book Consciousness Explained has often been jokingly re-titled “Consciousness Explained Away,” since the book attempts to account for all mental phenomena in neurological terms and to discard the Cartesian subject as an illusion. Nicholas Humphrey’s Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousnessshares Dennett’s fundamental perspective on consciousness, although Humphrey’s poetic style also manages to communicate its author’s joy in the supposed illusion. Humphrey argues that consciousness, understood as the sense of self-awareness in experience, is essentially an echo created by continuous feedback cycles in the brain. The perception of a self, the observer of one’s sensations and actions, is ultimately only a sensory feedback loop.

Humphrey attributes this illusory theater of self to evolution. Creatures that enjoy existing have a greater commitment to continuing existence than those driven by mere instinct to live. Consciousness, then, is evolution’s way of intensifying the attachment to life. Human beings, with the most highly developed feedback loops, are “connoisseurs of consciousness,” as Humphrey describes us, who take the most intense pleasures in their perceptions. The author supports this claim by drawing on his impressive knowledge of literature, as well as philosophy and the social and physical sciences.

Nicholas Humphrey

Although I found the book interesting, I remain unconvinced by its claims. On the subject of consciousness, I think I will have to list myself among those that Colin McGinn has described as “mysterians,” who believe that the ultimate nature of the phenomenon will always remain mysterious and cannot be solved (or explained away).  Most broadly, this is because I do not think that one can completely account for any system from inside of that system. Unable to move outside the boundaries of our own minds (at least in scientific terms), we can never trace the circumference of mind.

On the issue of consciousness as a feedback loop, I have two major concerns. The first and lesser one is that Humphrey’s description of how the loop supposedly works is highly abstract and schematic. He does not provide enough of an account of how this might happen as a matter of neurological connections within the brain. The second and greater concern is that I do not see that we can move from analyzing how something works (assuming we could) to saying what it is.

To say that consciousness is an “illusion,” moreover, strikes me as deeply problematic. There can only be an illusion if there is someone to perceive something incorrectly. The magician’s illusion depends on the presence of an audience that can be misled. But Humphrey, like Dennett, argues that the audience itself is an illusion in the Cartesian theater.

Finally, I remain skeptical of the evolutionary argument about the survival value of the pleasures of consciousness. Kierkegaard identified human consciousness with the sense of dread and a great deal of human awareness is not much fun. To the best of my knowledge, human beings are the only creatures who kill themselves out of existential despair. I can’t see much evolutionary survival value in that.

Humphrey does give some attention to anxiety, but largely writes it off as a side effect. His quotations of poetry and literary reflections, though, suggest that the view of humans as “connoisseurs of consciousness” might seem plausible to those of us in the enviable situation of modern middle class intellectuals, but it also might seem like a strange claim to many of our forebears in the long tragedy of history.

The Moral Liberal Sociology Editor, Carl L. Bankston III is Professor of Sociology at Tulane University in New Orleans, LA. He is the author and co-author of a number of books and numerous articles published in academic journals. An incomplete list of his books includes: Growing Up American: How Vietnamese Children Adapt to Life in the United States (with Min Zhou, 1998), Blue Collar Bayou: Louisiana Cajuns in the New Economy of Ethnicity (with Jacques Henry, 2002), and A Troubled Dream: The Promise and Failure of School Desegregation in Louisiana (2002), Forced to Fail: The Paradox of School Desegregation (hardback, 2005; paperback, 2007), and Public Education – America’s Civil Religion: A Social History (2009) (all with Stephen J. Caldas). View Professor Carl L. Bankston’s Page here. He blogs at Can These Bones Live?

Copyright © 2012 Carl L. Bankston III.