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Speculation, not science
on 22 February 2013
Having read some good reviews of this book, I was looking forward to a mind expanding tour-de-force that would provide a credible account and explanation of consciousness, how it arose and how the brain creates it. Unfortunately, for me at least, Humphrey failed to provide a convincing argument for any of this.
His ideas of how the brain uses its inherent feedback loops to create the illusion of consciousness are no more than just-so stories. His supposition is that consciousness is "a magic show that you stage for yourself inside your head . . . based on a contrived illusion: the sensory ipsundrum, which is an evolutionary develpment of sentition . . . " This is hypothesis without barely a shred of objectively verifiable evidence to support it. Instead of science Humphrey, thoughout the book, relies on quotations from other sources, mainly other philosophers, writers and poets to buttress his case. Most scientists, when putting forward a hypothesis like this, would accompany it with a proposed programme of research that would either provide supporting evidence or disprove it. This book contains nothing of the sort.
In the second section of the book Humphrey attempts to show how his model of consciousness could have evolved through natural selection. But, his understanding of the mechanisms of evolution by natural selection appear to be sparse and flawed. For example, his contention is that consciousness and the awareness of self improves self preservation through the enhancement of the joy of living and being. But he ignores the glaringly obvious fact that all creatures have already evolved to preserve themselves (and other carriers of their genes) without having to support the burden of consciousness. A possibly stronger hypothesis might be made that consciousness evolved as a result of sexual selection, but the book does not even mention this. Humphreys goes on to say, ". . . nothing in evolution by natural selection is really just a matter of luck . . . " Well, natural selection relies utterly on the appearance of random beneficial mutations that are preserved and amplified in the gene pool. If a cosmic particle fails to hit the right bit of DNA at the right time to create a mutation, or if the right DNA copying error does not happen to occur to produce a minor improvement to the phenotype, then a particular line of natural selection cannot occur. It is just a matter of random chance ie "luck"; natural selection is simply very good at cashing in on any lucky breaks that occur.
The third and final section of the book tries to show how spirituality, the ideas of the soul and immortality are inevitable and inescapable, even logical, consequences of consciousness, resulting in both rewards and anxieties. Some of this section was more credible but, I feel, offered little that was new or obvious. I was surprised that he had little to say about religion other than " . . . religious belief - especially belief in God - can be something of a drag on it [spirituality]". That was probably the biggest truth in the book.
I found Humphrey's style convoluted and heavy. His recourse to quoting other (and far better) writers leavened this a little, but his occasional attempts at humour didn't really help to lighten this difficult read.