Nicholas Humphrey on why subjective experience feels “like” anything

Nicholas Humphrey at London Book Fair 2012


During my visit to the London Book Fair, I interviewed Nicholas Humphrey for the BookBaby eBook release of the 20th anniversary edition of his great work A History of the Mind.

In this clip, I ask him about what philosophers mean when they say that it feels “like” something to have subjective experience, and why he makes a distinction between perception and sensation.

Nick believes that perceptual knowledge, by itself, lacks qualitative information.  I perceive that the door is closed, but it doesn’t feel “like” something that it’s close; I may know that Paris is the capital of France, but knowing that doesn’t feel “like” anything in the way that eating a peach or hearing a siren does.  That’s because there’s a sharp distinction between perceptual knowledge and sensory expression.

Humphrey argues that we perceive in parallel with sensation, rather than building perception up from nested levels of sense data.  His experiments in blindsight show that higher level perception can go on without sensation – for blindsight sufferers, they can, in a sense, see, but it’s not “like” anything for them and doesn’t enrich their lives.  Nick’s take is that we have an ancestral pathway which supplies us the rich sense of being touched by light, smells, etc., and the experience of what’s happening to me at the moment, the thick moment in which stimuli are touching me and I’m responding to them.  This activity generates a reverberating loop which extends the moment of consciousness beyond the physical instant so that we feel that we’re living in “thick time,” the “thick moment of consciousness.”

I asked Nick why, it feels “like” something when I’m working on a difficult math problem.  He replied that while we’re working out of problem, we’re working not just with our brains, but with our bodies too: often we’re clenching fists, hunched over, and generating somatic sensations that are part of sense of working on the problem – they’re genuine sensations with qualitative dimension supplied by feedback from bodies.  So it’s not the cogitation producing that feeling – it’s the way our bodies are involved in almost everything we do.  For Humphrey, it may be “like” something  to solve a math problem, but not “like” something in the same way as it is when, for example, seeing red.

The idea of it feeling “like” something to have subjective experience was introduced by the philosopher Thomas Nagel to get at the qualitative dimension of sensory consciousness.  Nick believes that seeing red is “like” something because it has a time dimension it couldn’t have – it seems to outlast the physical moment, flowing on in subjective time from thick moment to thick moment, each one seeming to outlast its physical presence.  But while sensation is flowing on it’s not happening in physical time but instead in subjective time, from thick moment to thick moment which seems to outlast its own presence.  While that’s a physical impossibility, we feel it’s “like” that – it *couldn’t* be that, but seems to be “like” that.

Here’s the clip:

It’s a joy to be releasing the 20th anniversary edition of Nicholas Humphrey’s A History of the Mind through BookBaby.  I had the great pleasure of writing the forward for the book and interviewing him at the London Book Fair this year.

It’s available on Amazon, Apple, B&N –

– and dozens of other retailers.  Get it!


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