Book review: Nicholas Humphrey’s “Soul Dust”

In an earlier post, I wrote about how the dinner I had at Nicholas Humphrey‘s house while visiting the UK for the London Book Fair. I was so moved that I decided to post here a book review I wrote for his latest masterwork, Soul Dust. Enjoy!

Why do people have qualitative phenomenal experiences, and why is it “like something” to have sensations? And why do we feel special and spiritual, as if we existed in a “soul niche?” In his marvelous book Soul Dust, Nicholas Humphrey provides perhaps the most sensible solutions to these fundamental but seemingly-intractable questions, and he offers some credible possibilities how and why consciousness likely evolved with these features.

The first half of Soul Dust is a whirlwind tour through Humphrey’s thoughts on sensation and why first-person experience feels like it does. As the author favors brevity, this part of the book is dense and requires some mental lifting on the part of the reader. Humphrey explains how natural selection could “adjust the properties of existing sensory feedback loops so as to steer the activity toward a special class of attractor states… [which] would seem, from the subject’s point of view, to give sensations their phenomenal properties.” Then, he illustrates multiple lines of evidence on what consciousness is for – why it may not enable you to do something but still has the crucial function of encouraging you to do something – and that primary individualism, by helping us develop a theory of mind, is beneficial for the individual *and* for the social group. Finally, he surveys the important work of scientists and convincingly argues why philosophers are still necessary, arguing that “the probability is that brain scientists would not recognize the NCC [neural correlates of consciousness] for what it is even if it were right in front of them.”

With this foundation in place, it’s the second half of Soul Dust which truly astonishes, for here, Humphrey shows why life can be beautiful in the face of death. Drawing on multiple lines of evidence (from for types and degrees of consciousness and “presentism” in other animals; poetry; primitive art, psychological studies; and even the last meals of death row inmates), Humphrey describes how and why we take pleasure in existence in itself. If natural selection can arrange pleasure in the feeling of existing, existing can become a goal, and you can plan and go through pain or delayed gratifications to achieve or continue it. In a brilliant move, Humphrey shows how and why our experience and the structure of our minds guide the false intuitions that our “souls” could somehow live on after bodily death. This helps explain why reductionist theory is counterintuitive for so many people and how religion rides as a parasite on our natural predilection for spirituality (and not vice versa).

The beautiful final chapters provide strong evidence for how phenomenal consciousness is a “magic show” you stage in your head which lights up the world so you can feel special and transcendent, and why it’s adaptive for you to feel that way (as well as even to have death anxiety). In so doing, Humphrey gives voice to the notion that there is actually beauty in being a creature which knows it’s going to die.

For thousands of years, people have told crazy stories to explain and to comfort each other in the face of death, tales which include positing earth-centered creation, the permanence of souls, and even consciousness as a separate fundamental element of the universe. But, to quote the film True Grit, “I do not entertain such hypotheticals, for the world as it is is vexing enough.” It can seem like a dark joke to have a subjective experience of consciousness for such a brief period of individual existence. But this book finds meaning and beauty in our brief skein not as a fairy tale a “gallows-humor” consolation prize; it shows how this “magical mystery show” of consciousness and sensation over a limited timeframe is actually lovely, and in so doing, it gives the reader the feeling that everything is illuminated. “Sentio ergo sum” (“I feel, therefore I am”) indeed!

Soul Dust is worth every minute of attention it demands, and it’s a mind-expanding, life-affirming work.

– Brian Felsen, President, BookBaby
@bookbaby, @brianfelsen

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