I’ve Been Told I’m Serving The Devil: An Interview with Cambridge Professor Nicholas Humphrey

Why do humans, alone among land animals, have a consciousness, a soul, that ineffable sense of self that asks, “Who am I, why am I here, do others feel like I do?”

Why do humans, alone among land animals, have a consciousness, a soul, that ineffable sense of self that asks, “Who am I, why am I here, do others feel like I do?” Nicholas Humphrey, emeritus professor of psychology at the London School of Economics, has posed that question for nearly five decades, and has arrived at answers that are at once commonsensical and controversial.

Consciousness, argues Humphrey, is a product of the process of natural selection. To be aware, to celebrate being in the world, confers upon humanity a survival advantage. Moreover, the ability to imagine what other humans might think or feel at any moment gives us a degree of social intelligence lacking in other species, another bit of leverage in the Darwinian struggle. But consciousness is not real; it doesn’t exist in the world, says Humphrey. It is an enticing illusion we ourselves create. Consciousness is our magic tool to interpret stimulus and sensation, to entertain ourselves, to try to make sense of it all.

If Humphrey’s conclusions sound more existential than empirical, well, he is no ordinary scientist. A theoretical psychologist based in Cambridge, U.K., Humphrey is also currently a visiting professor of philosophy at the New College of the Humanities in London. Early in his career he developed a theory of the function of the appreciation of beauty, which in radio broadcast form won the Glaxo science-writing award. He was the first to demonstrate the existence of “blindsight” — the ability of blind individuals to locate objects as if they could see, after brain damage — in monkeys, later confirmed in humans as well.

Humphrey’s most formative experience, however, was the three months he spent with Dian Fossey in Rwanda in 1972, observing mountain gorillas in the wild. He also visited Richard Leakey at his anthropological study site on Lake Turkana in northern Kenya. The fieldwork left Humphrey fascinated with the evolution of human cognitive capacities and led to his theory on the social function of intellect, which suggested that our brains grew in response to the exigencies of social life. Human beings evolved to be natural psychologists, Humphrey believed, who used their large brains and introspective thoughts to better understand other people.

That thesis formed the basis of a book, “The Inner Eye: Social Intelligence in Evolution” (1986), and a major television series for Channel Four in Britain, which Humphrey contrived to have filmed on location in Tahiti. Extrapolating upon his observations of Fossey’s gorillas, Humphrey hypothesized that “in evolutionary terms … the possession of an ‘inner eye’ served one purpose before all: to allow our own ancestors to raise social life to a new level.”

But he backed away from that hypothesis in subsequent works, and while he still grants consciousness a social role, he now suggests its primary purpose is more personal, internal and oriented to sensations. Consciousness, he now argues, is a magical mystery show that we stage for ourselves inside our own heads. This self-made show lights up the world for us and makes us feel special and transcendent. Thus consciousness paves the way for spirituality, and allows us, as human beings, to reap the rewards, and anxieties, of living in what Humphrey calls the “soul niche.”

Along the way, Humphrey also found time to edit the literary journal Granta, the only scientist ever to do so, and his writing is still peppered with bits of poetry more often than citations of peer-reviewed papers. His most recent book is “Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness” (2011).

In “Soul Dust,” you invent two words to explain the phenomenon of consciousness: isundrum and sentition. Why?

I wanted to emphasize the active nature of sensation, that we don’t just passively absorb sensations. We make them. We’re doing something when we respond with what I call sentition. Sentition is a kind of reaching out towards the stimulus of the body itself with an evaluative response or an expressive response. That includes sensation, action, volition and intention, which I think sentition does capture. Certainly people seem quite happy to understand it and use it in the way I want them to.

The other word, isundrum, has certainly not caught on.  I believe sensations originated in the active responses that our ancestors made towards stimulation. We began to monitor what we ourselves were doing. We began to represent the stimulus by the way we responded to it.  We don’t just perceive sensations. We make them. Sensations don’t exist in the stimulus. They certainly don’t exist in the outside world.

You say that consciousness is a product of evolution, that it confers a survival benefit to humanity. But you also say it’s something we create for ourselves, an illusion.

Many people aren’t comfortable with the idea of consciousness as an illusion. Maybe they’d be happier if we described it as a work of art. That is what we are, self-made works of art. With sensation we pick up information from stimulus and re-represent and re-create it. Sensations are things that we make, not just chemical processes in the brain. When we respond to a sensory stimulus, whether it’s salt on our tongue or the color red, it’s to make something, which we use, which we benefit from. It’s a work of art, and it’s a work of art of a very peculiar kind.  And what’s more, it’s an evolutionary innovation.

You write at one point that the isundrum is not physical; it is mathematical.

It is physical. I mean there is a physical pressure creating it. But its properties, if we tried to describe them, it would have to be in equations. It’s a big system in the real brain, interacting with actual objects in the world, actual activities in the world, creating feedback loops. Their properties can’t be described by anything other than a mathematical equation.

Consciousness is real for us because we experience it as if it is. But that doesn’t mean that what we’re experiencing is a property of the real world. It’s an illusion, but a very powerful one. Perhaps people think that if something is an illusion, it can’t have any really meaningful consequences. Now, of course that’s not true. Illusions can move mountains.  Belief in unreal things can have tremendous consequences.

These illusions are incredibly cunningly designed by natural selection in order to change our psychological profile, in order to make us think of ourselves and the world outside as being enchanted, with all sorts of properties that do seem to lift us above the common matter of the universe.

One of the most important things consciousness does is to give humans our own sense of self-worth, that we are at the center of this mystery and therefore we are spiritual beings living above the world.  It helps us relate to other creatures, especially and most importantly, to other human beings.

We think of other humans as being equally the embodiment of souls and having a spiritual essence. That changes our whole relationship with the people we live amongst. It allows us to live in what I call the soul connection, in which we believe that other people are just as special and precious and enchanted as we are.

That’s been the making of the human species. That’s what sets us apart. We see human beings as having a spiritual essence to them.

Consciousness is private, internal, even, as you say, illusory. But you also say it makes each of us a better natural psychologist, because we can make realistic guesses about the interior monologues of other people; other animals cannot.

The common thought was that many other animals besides humans would turn out to have the capacity for looking inside the souls of other creatures like themselves. It’s useful to do so. There were many comparative psychologists who thought it would prove that other animals were capable of what’s called interior mind.

But there’s very little to it. Chimpanzees can understand some mental states of other chimps and humans. But they’re really pretty dumb when it comes to mind reading.  Dogs are really quite good at mind reading, but that is almost certainly because we humans have shaped them up to be better and better at it. Natural psychologists argue this point. But in general, interior mind is not a faculty we share with other animals.

What we find most precious about the lives of other human beings is not directly observable; it’s just a good informed guess about what it’s like to be someone else. But it’s a guess we can’t help making.

Today’s organizations expect people to jump into project teams, often culturally diverse and geographically dispersed. But they don’t give them special training. How do we get from “me” to “we,” replacing selfishness with teamwork and camaraderie?

Going back to my earlier work, I first was interested in the role of consciousness in giving us insights to others.  We understand other people by thinking what it would be like to be in their situation. We go on self-knowledge in order to understand others. But we can only understand what it’s like to be someone else insofar as we have experience in a very similar situation ourselves in the past.

A newborn baby, of course, has not been in any interesting psychological situations. Now, the question is, how do you acquire the library of human experience? How can you even begin to understand all the possible kinds of our existence other humans might have, the kinds of experiences of hopes and sorrows and fears and dreams?

How do you become a good natural psychologist? I say just extend your own experience. As you grow up and have a wider experience yourself, you’re going to have more and more a better basis to understanding other human beings. But you can’t just leave it at that. If experience is going to come your way and you’re going to need to anticipate other situations other people find themselves in, you need to extend it very actively. You need to engage in imaginative play and even in dreaming in order to understand what it might be like to be in a situation you yourself haven’t been in before. You can use your own dreams. You can draw on the incredibly skillful dreams provided by dramatists and novelists.

I think it’s a terribly important human skill. And we’re not all deeply gifted. There are huge differences in empathetic understanding.  As you point out, people are increasingly in situations where they don’t necessarily understand other people that are meant to work with them.

But we must believe that we have the capacity to understand what it’s like to be other people. If we throw up our hands and think at the start that we just aren’t going to understand, then we’re not going to. We’re not going to even engage imaginatively.

It’s important that people don’t let themselves erect barriers against imagination in that way, that they don’t say, “Well, you know, I’m a man. I couldn’t imagine what it’s like to be you because you’re a woman.” Or, “I’m a white man. I couldn’t begin to think what it’s like to be an American black.”

Though I could never become a woman, I could never change the color of my skin, there are a lot of resources available to me that enter imaginatively into situations of diverse people. If I do that, if I gain inner experience in my dreams and my reading and my fantasies or whatever, then through that inner experience I gain new resources to begin to understand what it’s like to be someone else.  

In “Soul Dust” you say, “The feeling of transcendence that comes from reflecting on consciousness so changes people’s sense of their own importance that it sets a new agenda for human relationships. It opens up an ecological and cultural niche in which humans can thrive as never before.”

That’s what I call the soul niche. When we talk about the soul, whatever name we give it, the fact is that we live in a world not just with lots of other biological creatures like ourselves, but other spiritual creatures like ourselves. We believe in the inner life of the humans we live amongst — alike or unalike.

We expect all human beings to have this interior self, very much like our own, and to be equally conscious creatures, and to value themselves in a sense as beings with a soul. It is being, in a sense, made in the image of God. We have this extraordinary high view of ourselves.

By having such a high view of ourselves, we can slowly, slowly actually become the extraordinary spiritual creatures that we are. We have this idea of what we are, and because we have it, we actually become it.  Human beings are led to believe, partly because the culture reinforces it, that they actually have a transcendent immaterial side to them. We want to believe in our souls and our spirits as being outside and above our bodies.

But we realize at another level that when our bodies die, our souls die with them. And that’s a tragic and terrible force and discovery to have. Other animals go to their death without fear because they don’t value life in the way we do.

In “Soul Dust,” you write about how humans want to be, but their ultimate fate is not to be. Isn’t it rather an intellectual leap to say, as you do, that humans rationally believe in an afterlife?

Other people get surprised by that too. But I would say it’s quite reasonable to believe that the soul, the human spirit, will survive the death of the body.  The world over, that has been an almost universal belief, only recently challenged by people who believe for many reasons against immortality, that you just die and that’s the end of it.

There are reasons to think that our consciousness is going to last and last and last. We actually have evidence that it can resurrect itself. Every time we go to sleep it’s as if we die, but we always wake up again. Every morning we rediscover our immortality, in a sense. Out of nothing, we rediscover the very same person who vanished the night before.

Now, why should that process ever end? The fading of consciousness and its rebirth have become so familiar. It’s what we expect to come next. Therefore I think it’s not at all surprising that people talk about a rebirth after death. It’s happened every time so far. Why would it ever come to an end?

But then I also point to the other kinds of evidence that the soul or this human spirit is not linked necessarily to the body. We do wander away from our bodies and explore exotic worlds. Let’s consider that actually the self isn’t tied to the physical body we inhabit.

These are fantasies of course. But these are fantasies that very easily could support the idea that the body may turn to dust, but the soul is going to survive. I know it’s a big leap. But I don’t think it’s unreasonable when we talk about consciousness and the self and its extraordinary miraculous properties.

Those properties, we have every reason to believe, will survive the death of our body unless we know a bit too much about physiology and the brain and so on. It may seem surprising to say that it’s rational to believe in the afterlife. But I think that I can make that argument quite well. It’s not just a belief out of fear or religion. It’s a natural consequence of this effect of awakening, which we all have.

Imagine you’re having a pint at the pub with Richard Dawkins. How do you make the case for the rationality of a belief in an afterlife?

Well, we’ve been arguing about it regularly. But Richard is easy to surprise. He’s terribly literalistic and has rather, I think, simple-minded views about psychology. So Richard and I had a long discussion about this on one of his television programs, and I could just see his eyes getting wider and wider.

My project is the natural history of consciousness. I study consciousness as a phenomenon in the world of human beings.  You can’t do that in a lab or a library. You actually need to go and look at the effects it has on the lives we lead and our view of the world.

Again and again, you can identify things like belief in the soul, belief in afterlife and so on as not only reasonable effects, but adaptive effects, things which actually changed our lives for the better. I’m not saying that they’re true, but I’m saying the illusions are highly adaptive. Yet since my last book, “Soul Dust,” I’ve actually seen reviewers say I must have religious beliefs. Of course, I don’t. I don’t have any belief in the divine. But I recognize that those beliefs are very powerful. They can change our lives for the better. They have underpinned most of human civilization. We wouldn’t be where we are if those beliefs hadn’t been absolutely central to our culture. And they wouldn’t have been central to our culture if the ground hadn’t been prepared by the gift of consciousness.  I’m not saying Nature knew what she was doing. The fact was once Nature gave humans that kind of self-conception, it was inevitable we would pick it up and run with it and create the astonishing kinds of castles in the air which we’ve built.  We live better and more interesting and more fruitful lives as a result.

For 30 years at least, you’ve made the point that consciousness is the product of natural selection, because an appreciation of being in the world, as it were, grants humans a survival benefit.  Have you gotten resistance to the notion that the soul comes from a Darwinian process?

Consciousness helps us understand each other and empathize, which is entirely fitting if it’s a product of natural selection. And once more, it’s an illusion. It’s not based in the material world. It’s part of a spiritual dimension of the universe, which is intangible, which is in a sense outside physics. So the believers don’t like it because I try to materialize consciousness and the soul. And the materialists don’t like it because I’m trying to spiritualize consciousness.

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