Using Uri to get into J. C.'s head

The Mind Made Flesh
October 4, 2002

Ethics may not emerge from rhubarb, but Keith Sutherland finds there might be a way to solve the mind-body problem.

Nicholas Humphrey of the London School of Economics is a good candidate for the post of philosophers' favourite psychologist. Most psychologists are impatient with philosophical claims that there is an unbridgeable gap between brain events and the qualia of subjective experience - or "phantasms" as Humphrey describes them, showing his penchant for 17th-century natural philosophy. A typical exponent of this sort of claim would be Colin McGinn: "You might as well assert that numbers emerge from biscuits or ethics from rhubarb." Bernard Baars, a neuroscientist, can scarcely contain his bile when discussing this sort of "impossibility proof" from the perspective of those "toiling in the trenches" of experimental psychology and neurobiology. So far as most psychologists are concerned, philosopher David Chalmers can take his "hard problem" of consciousness and stick it...

Humphrey, however, concedes that philosophers have a point, and that previous attempts to bridge the "explanatory gap", either by redefining sensations as complex behavioural or linguistic events (Daniel Dennett) or by redefining the brain in a mentalistic direction (Roger Penrose) are "too far removed from most people's intuitions to be persuasive". In tune with his director at the LSE, Humphrey instead proposes a "third way" in which both concepts (sensory phantasms and brain states) are readjusted until they begin to match up. His approach - difficult to precis in a short review - is that sensory awareness is an activity rather than a passive sensation, thus aligning his views with the growing acceptance of "enactive" and other embodied approaches to cognition. Fortunately, neuroscience has a much better understanding of how the brain controls activity than how "phantasms" are generated from protoplasm.

But is Humphrey's third way any more successful than Tony Giddens's shotgun marriage of social democracy and the market? Fortunately it is - as was shown by the enthusiastic reception accorded to this book's central essay, "How to solve the mind-body problem", when it was the target of a symposium in the Journal of Consciousness Studies . Philosopher Carol Rovane described Humphrey's account as "the most promis-ing and fertile I have seen".

In a chapter titled "The uses of consciousness", Humphrey provides a lucid summary of the three approaches prevailing in the field of consciousness studies. Philosophers and phenomenological psychologists take the data of conscious experience as the starting point and end up with a seemingly unbridgeable explanatory gap to brain events. Cognitive neuroscientists, by contrast, correlate brain events, behaviour and reported experience but then either ignore or deny the logical difficulty in moving from correlation to causality. Francis Crick has championed this latter strategy and likes to contrast it with the third option - evolutionary studies. In a debate with the late Stephen J. Gould, he described the search for an evolutionary explanation of cognitive functions as "folly" - claiming that we would do better to understand the brain structure and embryology first and then look for evolutionary explanations later.

Although Gould does not top the reading list at Humphrey's LSE evolutionary psychology department, nevertheless both authors agree that the most fruitful approach is first to study the natural history of consciousness and then to look for the brain mechanisms. Donald Griffin's discovery of echo-location in bats originates from a study of bats' behaviour in their natural habitat. The discovery of a neurological mechanism for echo-location was a consequence of the natural history, rather than the other way round.

Given Humphrey's sociobiological assumptions, he argues that we should adopt a similar approach to the study of consciousness. The first task is to discover the function of consciousness. Human beings are fundamentally social creatures, so consciousness evolved (according to Humphrey), so that we could "understand, predict and manipulate the behaviour of our own species". Consciousness is a "socio-biological product".

One of his special gifts is in the imaginative reconstruction of past minds via the medium of the historical record and through modern parallels. Examples in this book include an attempt to understand the miracles and psychology of Jesus via a comparison with Uri Geller; a claim that Palaeolithic man was autistic (by comparing cave paintings with the work of the autistic savant Nadia); and an attempt to understand the minds of medieval jurists via the records of animal trials and executions. All fascinating stuff, and Humphrey's reconstructions are often very persuasive. But this is dangerous ground to tread, and not just on account of the usual accusations of "just-so" stories levelled at evolutionary psychologists. Given the growth of specialist scholarship, polymaths such as Humphrey are vulnerable to accusations of amateurism. In the original journal symposium following his "Cave art, autism and evolution", he gets a good kicking from an eminent team of anthropologists and archaeologists; and some of the sources he relies on, such as A. N. Wilson's Jesus , would not normally appear in a scholarly study.

Given that his views are all covered in his well-known monographs, why would someone who was not a member of the Nick Humphrey fan club want to buy this book - effectively the second volume of "Humphrey's Greatest Hits" (the first album, Consciousness Regained , was released in 1983). No doubt readers of this review might question my motivation (see below), but is there not a case for reading the essays in their original form, along with the commentaries and responses?

Perhaps the real value of this collection is to show the sheer breadth and variety of the author's interests. A deeply cultured man, Humphrey is just as much at home commenting on Shakespearean sonnets for the BBC or The Guardian as he is writing about the technical distinctions between William Hamilton's and Robert Trivers's competing models for the evolutionary psychology of altruism. Vittorio Gallese, the discoverer of "mirror neurons" in monkeys, once told me that neurobiology was a discipline in the humanities. The work of Humphrey is a testimonial to this claim, and this fascinating book is an ideal introduction to the breadth of his work - in both science and the humanities.

Keith Sutherland is executive editor, Journal of Consciousness Studies .

The Mind Made Flesh: Essays from the Frontiers of Psychology and Evolution

Author - Nicholas Humphrey
ISBN - 0 19 2802 5
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £11.99
Pages - 366

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