Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness

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"Just as fairy dust sprinkled on the mundane world turns it to gold, soul dust converts animal flesh into the enchanted world of sensation and self-consciousness. The result is illusion, but the illusion in which we live. This challenging and original book combines scientific rigor and exquisite sensitivity to the thoughts of philosophers, poets, writers, religious thinkers, and humanists. A delightful and thought-provoking tour de force."—Simon Blackburn, author of Think: A Compelling Introduction to Philosophy

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Overview

"Just as fairy dust sprinkled on the mundane world turns it to gold, soul dust converts animal flesh into the enchanted world of sensation and self-consciousness. The result is illusion, but the illusion in which we live. This challenging and original book combines scientific rigor and exquisite sensitivity to the thoughts of philosophers, poets, writers, religious thinkers, and humanists. A delightful and thought-provoking tour de force."—Simon Blackburn, author of Think: A Compelling Introduction to Philosophy

"As protean as consciousness itself, Nicholas Humphrey culls from neuroscience, evolutionary biology, psychology, anthropology, philosophy, and poetry to create a spirited and impassioned intellectual adventure."—Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction

"Humphrey, a theoretical psychologist at the top of his game, combines the romantic spirit of a Shelley or Keats with the razor-sharp intellect of a Sherlock Holmes. Here he brings his incisive mind to bear on one of the great riddles of science—the evolutionary origin of consciousness—and presents the best-yet solution to the supposedly insuperable problem."—V. S. Ramachandran, author of The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist's Quest for What Makes Us Human

"Scientists sometimes stand accused of missing the magic as they reduce nature to explanations. In this surprising and poetic book, Nicholas Humphrey does the opposite: he delves into the brain and discovers that the magic is the whole point of consciousness."—Matt Ridley, author of The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature

"Soul Dust is a must-read for everyone who wonders about the mystery of consciousness. Humphrey has come as close as any scientist ever has to solving the 'hard problem.'"—Arien Mack, New School for Social Research

"Nicholas Humphrey is a gifted scientific humanist who is able to integrate an extraordinary range of work from cognitive neuroscience, literature, and philosophy in offering his answer to the questions of what consciousness is, why it was selected for, and how it both causes and solves the problems of the meaning of life. This is a provocative book from a sparkling writer."—Owen Flanagan, Duke University

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Editorial Reviews

Alison Gopnik
Soul Dust…is seductive—early 1960s, "Mad Men" seductive. [Humphrey's] writing is as elegant, and hypnotic, as that cool jazz stacked on the record player. His argument feels as crystalline and bracing as that double martini going down…And his tone is as warm and inviting as that big, crackling fire…his book is not only thoroughly enjoyable but genuinely instructive too. Humphrey…may not have solved the mind-body problem…But he has some really interesting and original ideas about consciousness.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Humphrey (Seeing Red), the psychologist who discovered blind sight, combines the latest research on neurology and psychology with age-old philosophical questions about the nature of perception and sensation. In answer to the quandary of how human consciousness evolved, since much of our mental activity occurs unconsciously (fight or flight; intuition; biases), he suggests that sensual pleasure and the perception of beauty add value to our lives and enhance our desire to survive. Because we externalize our perceptions ("projecting sensations onto objects") we believe that our lives have meaning. He argues that the "magical interiority of human minds" is not merely a pleasurable bonus to the business of survival but creates the foundation for human existence and our ability to "acknowledge and honor the personhood of others." Though he rejects the existence of the supernatural, Humphrey sees a "soul niche," made possible by the development of complex neurological feedback loops, as the evolutionary home of the human species. This is a fascinating affirmation of the existence of the human soul and a difficult read, but well worth the effort.
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
New York Times Book Review
Soul Dust, Nicholas Humphrey's new book about consciousness, is seductive—early 1960s, 'Mad Men' seductive. His writing is as elegant, and hypnotic, as that cool jazz stacked on the record player. His argument feels as crystalline and bracing as that double martini going down, though you might find yourself a little woozy afterward. And his tone is as warm and inviting as that big, crackling fire, even if the dim flicker does leave things a bit obscure in the corners. . . . [Soul Dust] is not only thoroughly enjoyable but genuinely instructive too.
— Alison Gopnik
Wall Street Journal
[E]loquent. . . . Scientists are often accused these days of overlooking the awe and wonder of the world, so it's exciting when a philosopher puts that magic at the very heart of a scientific hypothesis.
— Matt Ridley
PublishersWeekly.com

Humphrey, the psychologist who discovered blind sight, combines the latest research on neurology and psychology with age-old philosophical questions about the nature of perception and sensation.
Science
Humphrey begins where Crick and others have left off. . . .[He] has laid out a new agenda for consciousness research.
— Michael Proulx
Scientific American Mind
How is consciousness possible? In Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness, psychologist Nicholas Humphrey, a leading figure in consciousness research, proposes a startling new theory. Consciousness, he argues, is merely a magic show we stage inside our heads. This show has allowed humans to become aware of themselves and their surroundings.
— Victoria Stern
Standpoint
[Nicholas Humphrey's] new book is a beautifully written and highly original essay. . . . He is right to focus on the notion of the soul, and to emphasize the degree to which we humans are 'connoisseurs of consciousness'. . . . [F]ew consciousness enthusiasts have succeeded so well.
— Adam Zeman
Beautiful Brain blog
It was a pleasure to engage with the book Soul Dust. . . .
— Ben Ehrlich
Minds and Brains blog
[I] highly recommend Soul Dust for anyone looking to get a better understanding of consciousness.
— Gary Williams
PsycCRITIQUES
Humphrey takes us on a journey that stimulates and educates, leaving our ipsundrum all the richer, if more lonely.
— Douglas K. Candland
San Francisco Chronicle
Humphrey offers an ingenious and crucial account of how it is that each of us experiences solely our own sensations, however much or little these echo what others report.
Choice
Once again, Humphrey gives readers a provoking look at the mystery of consciousness. A follow-up to his Seeing Red: A Study in Consciousness, this volume focuses on the 'hard problem' of consciousness. . . . Often poetic, Humphrey draws not only on the philosophers and neuroscientists who are central in the debates about consciousness but also cites the work of theologians, literary figures, and, yes, poets to illustrate how central the motive of transcendence is to the consciousness of the human being. Even those who disagree with Humphrey's premise or conclusions will want to read this book.
Montreal Mirror
[E]legant . . .
Dialogue
Consciousness is an immensely complex and, yes, evolved characteristic of life that should be studied from the ground up rather than the top down. This is precisely why Nicholas Humphrey's book . . . is so important. . . . [T]he general outlook to consciousness on which he bases the book is definitely one that should not have taken this long to get noticed. Cognitive science as we know it today would be very different if the views presented in this book had been adopted sooner.
— Frank Saunders
PsycCritiques

Humphrey takes us on a journey that stimulates and educates, leaving our ipsundrum all the richer, if more lonely.
— Douglas K. Candland
Commonweal
Humphrey has read widely not just in philosophy and the sciences, but in the arts and humanities as well. In presenting the fullness of human life made possible by human consciousness, he quotes incisively from artists and poets ranging from Elizabeth Barrett Browning and A. A. Milne to Wassily Kandinsky and Woody Allen. By drawing on sources outside the usual purview of scientific or even philosophical discussions of consciousness, Humphrey presents a richer understanding of what it means to be human than do most writers in the field, and we owe him a debt of gratitude for that.
— Paul Johnston
New York Times Book Review - Alison Gopnik
Soul Dust, Nicholas Humphrey's new book about consciousness, is seductive—early 1960s, 'Mad Men' seductive. His writing is as elegant, and hypnotic, as that cool jazz stacked on the record player. His argument feels as crystalline and bracing as that double martini going down, though you might find yourself a little woozy afterward. And his tone is as warm and inviting as that big, crackling fire, even if the dim flicker does leave things a bit obscure in the corners. . . . [Soul Dust] is not only thoroughly enjoyable but genuinely instructive too.
Wall Street Journal - Matt Ridley
[E]loquent. . . . Scientists are often accused these days of overlooking the awe and wonder of the world, so it's exciting when a philosopher puts that magic at the very heart of a scientific hypothesis.
Science - Michael Proulx
Humphrey begins where Crick and others have left off. . . .[He] has laid out a new agenda for consciousness research.
Scientific American Mind - Victoria Stern
How is consciousness possible? In Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness, psychologist Nicholas Humphrey, a leading figure in consciousness research, proposes a startling new theory. Consciousness, he argues, is merely a magic show we stage inside our heads. This show has allowed humans to become aware of themselves and their surroundings.
Standpoint - Adam Zeman
[Nicholas Humphrey's] new book is a beautifully written and highly original essay. . . . He is right to focus on the notion of the soul, and to emphasize the degree to which we humans are 'connoisseurs of consciousness'. . . . [F]ew consciousness enthusiasts have succeeded so well.
Beautiful Brain blog - Ben Ehrlich
It was a pleasure to engage with the book Soul Dust. . . .
Minds and Brains blog - Gary Williams
[I] highly recommend Soul Dust for anyone looking to get a better understanding of consciousness.
PsycCritiques - Douglas K. Candland
Humphrey takes us on a journey that stimulates and educates, leaving our ipsundrum all the richer, if more lonely.
Dialogue - Frank Saunders
Consciousness is an immensely complex and, yes, evolved characteristic of life that should be studied from the ground up rather than the top down. This is precisely why Nicholas Humphrey's book . . . is so important. . . . [T]he general outlook to consciousness on which he bases the book is definitely one that should not have taken this long to get noticed. Cognitive science as we know it today would be very different if the views presented in this book had been adopted sooner.
Commonweal - Paul Johnston
Humphrey has read widely not just in philosophy and the sciences, but in the arts and humanities as well. In presenting the fullness of human life made possible by human consciousness, he quotes incisively from artists and poets ranging from Elizabeth Barrett Browning and A. A. Milne to Wassily Kandinsky and Woody Allen. By drawing on sources outside the usual purview of scientific or even philosophical discussions of consciousness, Humphrey presents a richer understanding of what it means to be human than do most writers in the field, and we owe him a debt of gratitude for that.
BostonGlobe.com's Brainiac blog h Rothman

Nicholas Humphrey's Soul Dust tells its story from the beginning. Humphrey, an eminent English psychologist, aims to explain what a soul is, and to show, from an evolutionary perspective, why it's useful to have one. His conclusion, explained in readable prose, and illustrated with easily-comprehended evidence and examples from science, philosophy, and literature, is that the soul is 'not so much a physical object as a mathematical object,' and that its evolutionary usefulness lies in making 'life more worth living.' Its relaxed prose disguises the book's boldness: Soul Dust is ambitious, and just about as zany, as Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents.
From the Publisher
One of Choice's Outstanding Academic Titles for 2011: Top 25 Books

"Soul Dust, Nicholas Humphrey's new book about consciousness, is seductive—early 1960s, 'Mad Men' seductive. His writing is as elegant, and hypnotic, as that cool jazz stacked on the record player. His argument feels as crystalline and bracing as that double martini going down, though you might find yourself a little woozy afterward. And his tone is as warm and inviting as that big, crackling fire, even if the dim flicker does leave things a bit obscure in the corners. . . . [Soul Dust] is not only thoroughly enjoyable but genuinely instructive too."—Alison Gopnik, New York Times Book Review

"[E]loquent. . . . Scientists are often accused these days of overlooking the awe and wonder of the world, so it's exciting when a philosopher puts that magic at the very heart of a scientific hypothesis."—Matt Ridley, Wall Street Journal

"Humphrey, the psychologist who discovered blind sight, combines the latest research on neurology and psychology with age-old philosophical questions about the nature of perception and sensation."—PublishersWeekly.com

"Humphrey begins where Crick and others have left off. . . .[He] has laid out a new agenda for consciousness research."—Michael Proulx, Science

"How is consciousness possible? In Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness, psychologist Nicholas Humphrey, a leading figure in consciousness research, proposes a startling new theory. Consciousness, he argues, is merely a magic show we stage inside our heads. This show has allowed humans to become aware of themselves and their surroundings."—Victoria Stern, Scientific American Mind

"[Nicholas Humphrey's] new book is a beautifully written and highly original essay. . . . He is right to focus on the notion of the soul, and to emphasize the degree to which we humans are 'connoisseurs of consciousness'. . . . [F]ew consciousness enthusiasts have succeeded so well."—Adam Zeman, Standpoint

"It was a pleasure to engage with the book Soul Dust. . . ."—Ben Ehrlich, Beautiful Brain blog

"[I] highly recommend Soul Dust for anyone looking to get a better understanding of consciousness."—Gary Williams, Minds and Brains blog

"Nicholas Humphrey's Soul Dust tells its story from the beginning. Humphrey, an eminent English psychologist, aims to explain what a soul is, and to show, from an evolutionary perspective, why it's useful to have one. His conclusion, explained in readable prose, and illustrated with easily-comprehended evidence and examples from science, philosophy, and literature, is that the soul is 'not so much a physical object as a mathematical object,' and that its evolutionary usefulness lies in making 'life more worth living.' Its relaxed prose disguises the book's boldness: Soul Dust is ambitious, and just about as zany, as Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents."—Josh Rothman, BostonGlobe.com's Brainiac blog
"Humphrey takes us on a journey that stimulates and educates, leaving our ipsundrum all the richer, if more lonely."—Douglas K. Candland, PsycCritiques

"Humphrey offers an ingenious and crucial account of how it is that each of us experiences solely our own sensations, however much or little these echo what others report."—San Francisco Chronicle

"Once again, Humphrey gives readers a provoking look at the mystery of consciousness. A follow-up to his Seeing Red: A Study in Consciousness, this volume focuses on the 'hard problem' of consciousness. . . . Often poetic, Humphrey draws not only on the philosophers and neuroscientists who are central in the debates about consciousness but also cites the work of theologians, literary figures, and, yes, poets to illustrate how central the motive of transcendence is to the consciousness of the human being. Even those who disagree with Humphrey's premise or conclusions will want to read this book."—Choice

"[E]legant . . ."—Montreal Mirror

"Consciousness is an immensely complex and, yes, evolved characteristic of life that should be studied from the ground up rather than the top down. This is precisely why Nicholas Humphrey's book . . . is so important. . . . [T]he general outlook to consciousness on which he bases the book is definitely one that should not have taken this long to get noticed. Cognitive science as we know it today would be very different if the views presented in this book had been adopted sooner."—Frank Saunders, Dialogue

"Humphrey has read widely not just in philosophy and the sciences, but in the arts and humanities as well. In presenting the fullness of human life made possible by human consciousness, he quotes incisively from artists and poets ranging from Elizabeth Barrett Browning and A. A. Milne to Wassily Kandinsky and Woody Allen. By drawing on sources outside the usual purview of scientific or even philosophical discussions of consciousness, Humphrey presents a richer understanding of what it means to be human than do most writers in the field, and we owe him a debt of gratitude for that."—Paul Johnston, Commonweal

"The book is a pleasure to read; Humphrey writes with clarity, elegance, and enthusiasm. I urge you to read this book. It may change your mind about consciousness; it has changed mine."—Keith Frankish, Philosophical Quarterly

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780857388292
  • Publisher: Quercus
  • Publication date: 1/28/2012

Meet the Author

Nicholas Humphrey has held posts at Oxford and Cambridge universities, and is now professor emeritus of psychology at the London School of Economics. His many books include "A History of the Mind" and "Seeing Red".

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Table of Contents

Invitation ix
Prelude
Chapter 1: Coming-to Explained 3

Part One
Chapter 2: Being "Like Something" 27
Chapter 3: Sentition 42
Chapter 4: Looping the Loop 53

Part Two
Chapter 5: So What? 69
Chapter 6: Being There 80
Chapter 7: The Enchanted World 104
Chapter 8: So That Is Who I Am! 125
Chapter 9: Being Number One 140

Part Three
Chapter 10: Entering the Soul Niche 155
Chapter 11: Dangerous Territory 165
Chapter 12: Cheating Death 177

Envoi 203
Acknowledgments 215
Notes 217
Index 239

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