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The Human Nature Review Human Nature Review  2002 Volume 2: 334-335 ( 21 August )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/mind.html

Book Review

How to Solve the Mind-Body Problem
by Nicholas Humphrey
Imprint Academic, 2000.

Reviewed by Elizabeth McCardell PhD., Research Associate, Division of Social Science, Humanities and Education, Murdoch University, South Street, Murdoch, Western Australia 6150.

Essentially a target paper by Humphrey followed by ten short discussion papers by cognitive scientists and philosophers, including Andy Clark, Daniel Dennett, Naomi Eilan, Ralph Ellis, Valerie Gray Hardcastle, Stevan Harnad, Natika Newton, Christian de Quincey, Carol Rovane and Robert van Gulick, followed by Humphrey's reply in conversational style, this totally engaging book not so much challenges current views on this most ancient of problem than cogently argues for its definition.

How to solve the mind-body problem, indeed. Nothing is resolved in this book, we are, instead, given careful figuring of the elements necessary to its possible solution. The problem, as Humphrey sees it, is finally one of consciousness; that which lies in the apparent gap between sensation and perception. Sensation, he describes as an active process of engagement; not a passive state of received images, olfactory responses, aural input, tastes, and tactile messages. His thesis is thus not physicalist, but functionalist. It is also, at its heart, a physico-phenomenological approach (herein lies his argument against Dennett's thesis that sensations are merely behavioural complexes). The matter of experience is important to him. In the case of seeing the colour red, Humphrey speaks of "redness" that acts upon the eye in a way separate to its valuation. He writes, too, of the separate lines of evolution along which these two functions have developed and argues against a conflation of the two. In this latter regard he points out in his Reply to Commentaries (p. 101) that the two can be independently experienced, as some cases of colour agnosia describe. Colour agnosia sometimes manifests in seeing colour without the recognition of the colours of individual objects. Humphrey notes, also, that any of us can experience a time gap between sensory input and perceptual judgement. A flurry of colour besets the eye when the 'lights go up in a dark room full of coloured books, curtains, rugs.' We have the experience of 'a field full of colour sensation' without actually knowing what it is that we see. Any act of identification is a perceptual act and is an evaluative-laden response, an 'evidence of stimulation with contextual information, memory and,' as he says, 'rules' in the construction of a 'hypothetical model of the external world as it exists independently of the observer' to sentition (a word coined by Humphrey in his earlier book, The History of the Mind), i.e., pertaining to the senses.

Perception without sensation is rare, according to Humphrey. Such a condition would lack, as he says, 'presence, the hereness and nowness and me-ness, that sensation usually lends it' (p. 106). Presence, this hereness and nowness; this me-ness, is critical for Humphrey's definition of consciousness and thus his key to the solution of the mind-body problem. The example Humphrey gives for a perception without sensation: of the difficulties children have of giving colour names to objects, is open to question. There are plenty of other possible explanations, e.g.., linguistic difficulties, social awe, or cultural constraint, are just some. Naming colour for objects is fraught with problems, anyway. What, for instance, of a culture's litany of colour names that are used in inclusive ways? The colour green is used to describe all manner of shades between yellow and blue; red may include maroon, rose pink, india red and scarlet; ochre and lime-lemon are often called "yellow".

Of the definition of consciousness, situated between the nowness of sensation and the judgement of perception, its clue is in the person's interaction with the objects of the world. Sensory awareness is thus a participation, a "doing with", not an act of sensing some external object. Humphrey speaks of being in a state of "paining"; this is to say, 'sensing is not a passive state at all, but rather a form of active engagement with the stimulus occurring at the body surface' (p.13). [Body surface, I ask? Is sensation a function only of surfaces? Drew Leder (1990) notes, by contrast, a sensation function that incorporates the inner recesses of the body, for pain receptors are found in several organs of the body, not just the skin.] Our interpretation, evaluation, and judgement of what this paining is, belongs to the realm of perception. As Humphrey puts it, "what I actually experience as the feeling - the sensation of what is happening to me - is my reading of my own response to it' (p. 13).

Sensation as an active function shows us how it has evolved from responses of irritation that - in more primitive organisms - carried them through into actual, direct, behaviour. Saltiness produces wriggling in an organism, entirely locally, and organized around the site of stimulation. Later there develops a sort of 'reflex arc passing via a central ganglion or proto-brain: information arrives from the skin, it gets assessed, and appropriate adaptive action is taken' (p.16). Over time, this raw sensory response acquires "powers" of interpretation, of prediction so that irritatory substances may be avoided. These interpretative acts later become perceptual judgements. This thesis, proposed by Humphrey, has been judged by other reviewers as revolutionary. It is, however, a thesis much discussed by other cognitive scientists not least the members of a Murdoch University, Western Australian cognitive science discussion group. That aside, this is a worthy book marked by Humphrey's clear intent to write cleanly, and to avoid ambiguous language. Mostly he is successful but there are unfortunate lapses. He writes of the "feeling" of redness. "Feeling" though, is usually associated with "affect" or emotion, but Humphrey uses it to write of the sensory. One should, however, not be too picky about these little lapses. This book deserves to be read and argued with for it is a fine offering.

Highly Recommended.

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© Elizabeth McCardell.


McCardell, E. (2002). Review of How to Solve the Mind-Body Problem by Nicholas Humphrey. Human Nature Review. 2: 334-335.

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