The Books Interview: Nicholas Humphrey

Solving the problem of consciousness.

Most of the Critics section in this week's issue of the New Statesman, out today, is devoted to a philosophy special. The philosopher and writer Raymond Tallis reviews two of the latest contributions to the burgeoning science of consciousness, Antonio Domasio's Self Comes to Mind and Nicholas Humphrey's Soul Dust. Humphrey recently spoke to the New Statesman about his new book.

Can you explain the title of your new book, Soul Dust?
I'm arguing that consciousness is like a kind of fairy dust which turns everything it touches into gold. "Dust" means matter too, but what I also want to do is reintroduce the soul as a respectable issue for evolutionary psychology and philosophy.Soulfulness or spirituality is a major achievement of natural selection. It allows us to live in this extraordinary ecological net which I call "soul land".

What's distinctive about your approach?
Philosophers and scientists have assumed that consciousness must be giving us some new skill or faculty of cognition. Then they get verypuzzled, because it doesn't seem to. I argue that consciousness changes our psychology in terms of our attitude toward the world we live in, rather than giving us a new skill.

Why do you want to make the idea of the soul respectable again?
My position as a natural historian of consciousness is to take seriously the way consciousness affects people's outlook on life. They may, for example, have the Christian idea of the soul, with all the baggage that comes with it.But spirituality and the belief in the soul actually came before religion, and religion has been parasitic on them. I don't agree with the view, now rather common view among evolutionary psychologists, that religion was evolutionarily adaptive.

How do you account for the emergence of religion then?
It emerged for cultural reasons. It's an extraordinarily powerful "meme", if I can use that word. But memes don't have to serve the interests of the hosts who carry them. I'm not arguing that religion is a bad thing in terms of the consequences it has. My point is that people had a spiritual side before religion took advantage of it.

You describe consciousness as a "magical mystery show" that human beings lay on for themselves. Why do we do that?
Sensation didn't have to have the qualities it does. They seem to have been elaborated by some really clever things going on in the brain. The question is why we have evolved them? My answer is that they change our relationship to the world and make it seem a more mysterious and magical place, and make us, as the enchanters of the world, see to be extraordinary, almost supernatural beings.

Indeed, you point out that we are tempted to treat consciousness as something "out of this world".
It seems to be something that is beyond explanation in terms of what we know about the material world. That's a claim which many people, religious believers and philosophers, always make.

So do you see your job in this book as breaking the spell that consciousness puts on us?
I don't think I'm breaking it. I'm drawing attention to it, and marvelling at it. Of course, I'm also trying to give a material explanation for what looks like magic. But the emphasis is on the fact that it does look like magic, and the questions I go on to ask are about what purpose it's serving.

What about animals which are conscious but don't, as far as we can tell, feel so special?
There may be varieties of consciousness which have at least some of the psychological effects I described and which we could recognise in dogs or chimpanzees, say. We should be able to see signs of it in the playfulness and the exuberance of an animal, in the way it delights in being itself.

Your background is in experimental psychology rather than philosophy. What do your more empirically minded colleagues think of what you're doing?
I'm waiting to see. The challenge will be to "prove it". If I am doing this in the name of science, then I ought to come up with predictions. But that is a tough order. I just hope that the ideas are taken seriously and that people who are much cleverer than me will realise that this could haveinteresting and testable consequences.

Interview by Jonathan Derbyshire
Nicholas Humphrey's "Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness" is published by Quercus (£18.99)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Radio as shelter: Grenfell Tower was too frightening to look at

No song seemed to fit the mood on Hayes FM.

“Amidst all this horror, I hope to bring you some light relief. Here’s James Taylor.” Two days after the Grenfell Tower fire, a popular community station a little west of the incident was uncertain what note to strike.

The repeated ads for alarms detecting carbon-monoxide leaks (“this silent killer”) and tips on how to prevent house fires (“Don’t overwhelm your sockets and cause a spark”) sounded perhaps a little overassertive, but then the one for a day-long course focusing on resisting gender stereotyping (“Change the narrative”) felt somewhat out of place. And no song seemed to fit. James Taylor’s “Shower the People” turned out OK, but the Cranberries’ “The Icicle Melts” was unceremoniously faded out mid-flow.

This does often happen on Hayes FM, though. There are times when the playlist is patently restless, embodying that hopeless sensation when you can’t settle and are going through tracks like an unplugged bath – Kate Bush too cringey, T-Rex too camp – everything reminding you of some terrible holiday a couple of years ago. Instead, more ads. Watch your salt intake. Giving up smoking might be a good idea. Further fire safety. (“Attach too many appliances and it could cause an overload and that could cause a fire. Fire kills.”)

Then a weather report during which nobody could quite bring themselves to state the obvious: that the sky was glorious. A bell of blue glass. The morning of the fire – the building still ablaze – I had found three 15-year-old boys, pupils at a Latimer Road school that stayed closed that day because of the chaos, sitting in their uniforms on a bench on the mooring where I live, along the towpath from the tower.

They were listening to the perpetual soft jangle of talk radio as it reported on the situation. “Why the radio?” I asked them, the sight of young people not focused on visuals clearly unusual. “It’s too frightening to look at!” they reasoned.

Radio as shelter. As they listened, one of them turned over in his hand a fragment of the tower’s cladding that he must have picked up in the street on the way over – a sticky-charcoaled hack of sponge, which clung like an insect to his fingers whenever he tried to drop it. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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