Sentience by Nicholas Humphrey

by stephenpalmersf

Regular readers of this blog and fans of my work in general will know the very high esteem in which I hold Nicholas Humphrey: our Darwin of the mind. Originator of the social intelligence theory of consciousness, philosopher and psychologist, his books have enthralled and inspired me ever since I saw his The Inner Eye television series in the mid-1980s. Now, eleven years after his last book, comes a new work.

First of all, Sentience is fascinating, beautifully written, thought-provoking and important. But more than that, to my mind it is true. Everything Humphrey writes here, which in some ways sum up his huge contribution to the field of the understanding of consciousness, has that feel of being fundamentally correct. The tale he is telling matches reality.

The book falls into three thirds, the first giving the background to Humphrey’s journey through life and the questions he asked himself as he pondered various unknowns: consciousness… why, and when? This summary is vital for the following two parts, one of which deals with our phenomenal experiences (the redness of a poppy, the sweetness of sugar, etc), and one of which sums it all up in a new perspective, drawing at all times from evolutionary reasoning.

It’s this latter third which I think is groundbreaking. The issue for the vast majority of philosophers dealing with qualia in the brain (that is, how the redness of red can be generated and experienced by “mere” neuron activity) is how to make the leap from neurons to private mental experience. There’s a couple of sentences in this book which I suspect may be the most important Humphrey has ever written. They read: Remember how it emerged in the earlier discussion that when, for example, you project phenomenal redness onto a poppy, you are in effect making a bridge to other sentient beings. You’re seeing the poppy as being ‘rubropotent’ – as having the power to evoke red qualia in another like yourself.

Isn’t that extraordinary? Other philosophers look at one brain in isolation and try to pin down the mind/body relationship therein, but that’s their mistake. Conscious brains, human brains, never exist in isolation. They grow, develop and mature only in social groups. Personally, I think this cultural blind spot has a lot to do with men dominating such intellectual discussions, men who in comparison with women have little grasp of the true importance of relationships.

This, then, is the brilliance of Nicholas Humphrey. He grasps the fundamental role of social relations in the evolution of consciousness. He never loses sight of that evolutionary history, and indeed uses it to underpin the truth of his theory.

As he notes early on in the book, his intellectual and philosophical journey has been rather a lonely furrow. I hope this exceptional work changes all that. It certainly deserves to. It’s more than worthy of being added to his outstanding canon of work. Trailblazing, compelling and true.