Soul Dust is Nicholas Humphrey’s fourth and perhaps final major popular work about consciousness. Subtitled the magic of consciousness, it takes the reader through some of his earlier concepts, especially those in Seeing Red, before providing a conclusion to decades of groundbreaking work.
This book emphasises the role of natural selection in the evolution of consciousness, first mentioned in the trailblazing The Inner Eye. Natural selection, Humphrey reasons, must have had something to work upon in order to select so strongly for consciousness. That something, he suggests, is the joy of living – the fact that we are important, both to ourselves and to others, and that we delight in the experience of living, which makes survival in social groups all the more likely. It’s a brilliant notion, which he examines from the perspective of an Andromedan ‘psychological zombie,’ but also through wondering whether or not other species are conscious – Humphrey did research with monkeys and apes for many years, and even worked for a few months alongside Dian Fossey.
Once the main thesis is put forward and argued, there comes a third section, more philosophically speculative than the rest of the book, and indeed of his earlier work, in which he ponders the role of death in the evolution of consciousness. We, after all, are the only species who can fear death.
Here I have to admit I part company with Humphrey. In this book Humphrey deliberately uses the word soul – he posits a ‘soul niche,’ which emerges in parallel with the evolution of consciousness, and of course the word in plain for all to see in the book’s title. But Humphrey, an avowed atheist who has written extensively on atheism, is aware that the word soul has baggage. “Too much baggage?” he asks, coming to the answer no. My answer however is yes. Humphrey wisely points out that religion is parasitic upon spirituality, which, like me, he sees as a far earlier concept (my guess would be 80,000 – 100,00 years old: Humphrey wonders if spirituality arrived at the time of the Cultural Revolution 40,000 years ago, or is perhaps 200,000 years old, when homo sapiens first appeared in Africa). Spirituality he sees as a concept – the immortal spirit or soul – emerging from the experience of consciousness itself. It is, he suggests, an aspect of our deepest psychology. I see the concept as based in the experience of consciousness but having its roots in culture, not psychology. It is, I think, a human answer within the greater framework of meaning.
I also think that Humphrey, like other authors (Paul Davies and Stephen Hawking spring to mind), is unwise in using the vocabulary of religion to describe purely human concepts. The notion of spirit or soul, which Humphrey sees as an inevitable result of consciousness, he describes as something which allows human beings to survive better as individuals. I see the concept as one devised in cultural settings to explain a human experience. I agree with Humphrey that the concept of spirit was inevitable, but I think its roots lie in the prehistoric imagination, not in some deeper psychology which we can never escape. As a consequence, I think talk of spirits and souls in a book of this significance is flawed, if not imprudent.
Of course, that rather begs the question, “what would you use instead?” It’s not an easy one to answer, but I think when referring to human individuality, character or identity in discussions such as these we would be better off using a neutral word like self or being. Many years ago, when I was working for Waterstones, members of staff were asked to put questions to Philip Pullman (another noted atheist) for publication alongside his answers in the company magazine. My question was something along the lines of, “Do you think your use of religious terminology in His Dark Materials has somehow diminished your atheist stance?” Pullman acknowledged this to be a very interesting and pertinent question, but sided with Humphrey, suggesting that the amount of conceptual baggage was acceptable. So, I disagree with him too on this matter!
Soul Dust ends with a meditation on coping with death. As Humphrey observes, there are three main ways of coping: avoiding the concept entirely by living hedonistically for the moment; allowing yourself to merge with the greater human culture as you age; and positing an immortal soul, i.e. denying the obvious. This latter section of the book feels slightly out of place when set against the rest of the work, but only a little. And while I don’t agree with Humphrey here, his thoughts are, as ever, superbly argued and very well written.
This is another exceptional work, as thought provoking as all his previous books.