- Series: Mind/Brain/Behavior Initiative
- Hardcover: 160 pages
- Publisher: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press (March 31, 2006)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0674021797
- ISBN-13: 978-0674021792
- Product Dimensions: 7 x 5.8 x 0.6 inches
- Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces
- Average Customer Review: 18 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #838,051 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Seeing Red: A Study in Consciousness (Mind/Brain/Behavior Initiative)
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From Publishers Weekly
In this extended answer to the question, "Can one's consciousness survive after one dies?"-asked by philosopher Thomas Reid in 1775 and Joe King, a disabled country singer, in 2003-Humphrey concedes he is working to "develop a concept of consciousness which we, as theorists, can do business with." He argues perception is neither solely nor necessarily a product of sensation, and, in fact, the two may exist independently of one another. Humphrey simplifies these intellectually rigorous discussions by returning to a central example of a person staring at a red screen. (Thus creating a "red sensation.") Humphrey's conversational prose-the book is based on his lectures-is an odd fit for the scholarly material, but his approach makes his 30 years of experience in "consciousness studies" accessible to casual readers.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Humphrey's History of the Mind: Evolution and the Birth of Consciousness (1992) elaborates the ideas distilled in this digestible precis. Based on the author's Harvard University lectures, it directly addresses the reader as a fellow contemplator of consciousness. That every person knows what it is but cannot give a convincing description of it, is the nettle Humphrey grasps as he explains his view of the problem. Figuratively seating the reader in his darkened lecture hall, Humphrey illuminates a monochromatic screen--red in this case. By what psychological pathway does the viewer experience the redness of the screen? Humphrey classifies the experience of initial stimulation as a subjective "sensation," which through internal feedback loops becomes an objective "perception" of the screen as red. Holding that this cognitive process may be the origin of self-awareness, Humphrey parries criticisms of the theory, and follows the allusion to the academic debate with a narrative of his sensation/perception mechanism evolving from microbe to mankind. Illustrating his argument with the musings of poets and painters, Humphrey stylishly inspires curiosity about consciousness. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
Top customer reviews
This is an amazing topic, and I find this book does a good job of surveying basic issues as well as laying out the author's particular position, though it seems that his argument sometimes fails to flow.
Ultimately, I like Humphrey's view of consciousness, with one little qualification: to describe human consciousness as a re-entrant circuit is reasonable, but that description does not explain the capacity of matter to observe in the first place. This little nitpick is what makes me a philosophical idealist rather than a philosophical materialist, but hey: it's not my book.
The book, even for its small size, has its excesses. His decision to start the book by deconstructing a statement about the state of our understanding of consciousness was a waste of ink and time. Better, I think, just to hit the ground running.
I appreciate the fact that he cites some of the criticisms of his position. Understanding counter arguments is more useful than being convinced of a particular point of view.
A nicely-produced little book. Good bathroom meditation book. If it'd only been proofread (I ran into a couple glaring typos).
He takes a dual approach, first laying out a pseudorepresentationalist naturlistic theory of sensation, and then proposing an evolutionary history to account for its existence. The first part is probably the weakest part of the book. Humphreys idea that there very likely exists a deep functional/biological basis for perception and sensation must be right at some level, but its not clear how this accounts for the representational aspects of sensation. Humphrey proposes that sensations are representing (virtually) what once was a bodily reaction to a stimulus, and this seems also to be right at some level, but again, just because sensation and actions have some properties in common (even intentionallity), it is not clear how this makes sensations any more amenable to philosophical explanation. At times, Humphrey seems to drift from representationalism to higher order thought theories of sensations, when he decleares that to see red "the subject gets to have a red sensation,s, then gets to feel his having of this red sensation p(s)". What exactly is, in phenomenological terms, the difference from having a red sensation (redding, if you will) and to get to feel the redding itself? if "feel" seems to allready imply sensation, then I do not really think it does any explanatory or causal work. This is not to say that his analysis is helpful. It certainly accounts elegantly for blindsight and other phenomena. But at the end of the first couple of chapters, one is left with what feels like an incomplete theory of sensation, in philosophical terms.
But then comes the good stuff. Humphreys theory of the evolutionary roots of sensations is one of the most elegant out there. How bodily reactions became internalized, and then played in internal neural loops, is hard to answer indeed, but theoretically, it sounds like a plausible theory. Humphrey also proposes a totally novel function for consicousness (no small feat). Consciousness, according to Humphrey, makes things matter to the subject. This is why blindsighted individuals with no visual sensations do not care for their visual abilities. Without visual consicousness, vision does not matter as much. It is easy to see how conciousness would have survival value. Conscious organisms would work harder in doing things if they are conscious. The problem would be to explain why mattering would be so essential in evolutionary success. Evidently, amoebas, not likely consious, are evolutionary succesfull, without anything mattering to them at all, so mattering cannot be essential to the evolutionary origins of sensation. When did mattering enter the picture? at the same time conscious sensations did, or latter? if the latter, then consciousness existed befor it had that function, which would raise the qustion of why it developed that function at all. It seems like if consiousness has a function, it evolved to serve it, and not the otherway arround. Still, it must be right that in humans, consicousness makes things matter. But it is not clear how this function could be implemented in low level organisms that might have sensations.
Other discussions in the book, like the spirited section on the "thick present" of consiousness, also raise some intersting questions. Overall, I think Humphreys book shows that by defining concepts, and some clever theorizing, a simple idea can go a long way into explaining big phenomena, such as sensation and qualia. At the end of the book, one feels like progress has been done, but it is difficult to point out exactly how much and where. The strenghts in Humphreys work are his evolutionary theories of the origin of sensation, and the elegant way these lead to speculation on the functions and neural bases of consiousness. But the philosophical parts are sketchy at best. Humphrey himself admits to not having much philosophical support (apart, it seems, from Dennett), and this might be fatal, as it seems more and more that explaining qualia will have more to do with philosophers than with scientists (unfortunately). However, this book is an important contribution to the debate.
Quite technical in many respects, drawing upon his experience and experiments over many years. But quite readable, building up a good case for his view.
of human consciousness sums up what the author
has been saying since his first book, thirty years
ago, but in very clear terms, adding the spiritual
dimension (depth time) of consciousness to the
social advantages of it in terms of cooperation and
deception. His naturalist approach reminds me of
Santayana. A veritable delight to read.
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