Nicholas Humphrey's latest book on the mystery of consciousness travelled with me to Crete, Latvia and America. And the intellectual journey it took me on has half-persuaded me that his evolutionary approach will one day provide an answerby Paul Broks / April 29, 2007 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2007 issue of Prospect Magazine
One day I’ll be dead. The thought swirled by on a summer’s evening in Crete. There was cold beer at my elbow and my sandalled feet were up against the trunk of a pine. A book lay open in my hands but I wasn’t reading. I was noticing colours: the bark running blue-grey to rust, the red geranium. I was noticing insects and animals: the tiny green bug on my forearm, the microscopic orange thing that dropped on to the book, no bigger than a full stop, the ginger cat stretching in the shade. The air was filled with the din of cicadas and Mediterranean scents. I sipped my beer and savoured the moment.
The open book was Nicholas Humphrey’s Seeing Red: A Study in Consciousness. I’d stopped reading by the second page, derailed by Joe King’s email. Joe is 20 years old and severely disabled. He is writing to tell Humphrey of his concern that, when he dies, “this crippled body might be all I have.” Yes, Joe, I’m afraid so. “Do u believe consciousness can survive the death of the brain?” he writes. No, Joe, it can’t. Why kid ourselves? These were my answers, not Humphrey’s. I turned them over as the sun sank. I could imagine Joe’s disappointment. Humphrey would give us his reply in due course, but, for now, he was focusing on the young man’s question because it revealed something important about the nature of consciousness, which is that consciousness matters to us. It matters more than anything. Of course it does. Yet the fact of its mattering so much goes mostly unremarked by scientists and philosophers of mind.
The purpose of Seeing Red was to frame an explanation of “just what the matter is.” The book is based on lectures delivered at Harvard in the spring of 2004. At the start of the first lecture, Humphrey put up a screen of plain red light and informed the audience that he would be spending the next three hours discussing what was going on in their minds as they looked at the screen. Reading the book is supposed to be the next best thing to attending the lectures, an effect aided by the book’s conversational delivery and diagrams of a spiky-haired cartoon chap looking at a red rectangle, head abuzz with thought bubbles.