Pictures of Ourselves

P.N. Johnson-Laird

  • Consciousness Regained: Chapters in the Development of Mind by Nicholas Humphrey
    Oxford, 222 pp, £12.95, September 1983, ISBN 0 19 217732 X

During World War Two, my father was walking out of a greengrocer’s shop in London when a flying bomb crashed and exploded nearby. The blast swept him off his feet, but he was otherwise unhurt. He picked himself up with the aid of a passing policeman, got into his car and drove off. Some time later, as he described it, he ‘came to’ to find himself driving along in a part of London totally unfamiliar to him and with no awareness of how he had come to be there. As a result of shock, he had evidently been driving on some sort of ‘automatic pilot’ much as certain epileptic patients display automatic behaviour after they have had a seizure. At the time, it made a deep impression on me that one could do something as complicated as driving a car without any apparent consciousness of what one was doing.

In reading Consciousness Regained, I was reminded of what happened to my father, for this book, too, brings together consciousness and a bomb. Nicholas Humphrey is an experimental psychologist, who is interested in art, culture, politics and the mind; and he tells us that he would have liked to have written a ‘real book’ which brought together all his ideas on these topics. Instead, he has brought together a number of his essays that reflect these diverse interests. He has one other passionate interest: the survival of the human race from the threat posed by the bomb. Indeed, he is perhaps best known to the general public as the man who delivered the 1981 Bronowski Memorial Lecture on BBC 2. This lecture, which is reprinted in the book, was an impassioned appeal for us all to wake up and start screaming about the absurd nature of the nuclear arms race.

The race is maintained, of course, by the concept of deterrence – the idea that if each side is assured that it can destroy the other, then neither side will go to war. This idea is at least debatable, though in Britain we are unlikely ever to know whether it worked: if there is no nuclear war, we shall never be certain whether our weapons were the decisive deterrent, and if there is a nuclear war, we are unlikely to survive long enough (I hope) to appreciate that deterrence has failed. On the whole, like Humphrey, I am sceptical about ‘mutually assured destruction’ as a deterrent, and I would prefer some human beings to survive rather than none, even if those human beings were morally equivalent to Genghis Khan, Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. And I grant that if there is a nuclear war only individuals of such vastly diminished moral stature – viz. those responsible for the war – are likely to survive. However, even if one accepts that deterrence is the best bet for peace, the arms race has reached the level of florid psychosis. As Humphrey emphasises, the world now contains sufficient weaponry to incinerate, disintegrate and irradiate each of us to death many times over. Not even the concept of deterrence can justify the need for so much conspicuous destruction, and it is striking how many of our political masters – once they have relinquished power – point out the folly of spending so much money on these luxury goods. Humphrey has a nice quotation from President Carter’s farewell address to the American public in which he warned that more people will be killed in the first few hours of a nuclear war than in all the wars of recorded history put together. ‘It is now,’ Carter said, ‘only a matter of time before madness, desperation, greed or miscalculation let loose this terrible force.’

Why, then, do we let them get away with it? Humphrey’s answer is that in order to understand our acquiescence we need a better grasp of the psychology of human beings. This is the goal that he addresses in his selection of scientific papers, essays and book reviews. In so far as there is a theme running through them, it is the mutual relation between social life and consciousness.

Consciousness is the riddle. Without it, you would presumably be unaware of its existence in others; with it, you may wonder about the purpose it serves, and how it could have evolved, and about the mechanisms of the brain that give rise to it. You may even wonder about how it is logically possible for you to be aware that you are aware – that state of mind which Humphrey dubs ‘reflexive consciousness’ and which is readily entered though it smacks of paradox. Of course, not everyone worries about these phenomena. Some people go out of their way to avoid them, just as some avoid thinking about the bomb. There was even a school of psychology, ‘Behaviourism’, whose adherents found consciousness so puzzling that they deliberately banished it from serious scientific study. Behaviourists are now a vanishing species only to be found lurking in departments of psychology in the US, and happily the main stream of psychology is again concerned with the mind. Consciousness is once more a respectable subject for scientific investigation – slightly more reputable than spoon-bending, but not yet on a par with nuclear physics.

The questions of major importance to Humphrey are how and why consciousness evolved. He offers an ingenious and plausible conjecture. Human beings lead an extremely complicated social life, which calls for a high degree of calculation about the motives and intentions of others, and a high degree of sensitivity to their moods and feelings. These skills demand that each of us function as a ‘natural psychologist’, and nature – in the guise of evolution – has given us one supreme technique for doing psychology: the subjective experiences of consciousness provide us with access to a picture of our own selves which we can use as a model for what it is like to be another person. We can thereby infer that others have states of mind similar to our own. In dealing with other people, we can calculate all the better what is going on in their minds because we have a privileged knowledge of what is going on in our own. The evolution of our capacity for ‘reflexive consciousness’ – our consciousness of consciousness – arose from our exceptional need to be psychologists. Other species lack so extreme a need because they have a simpler social life, and according to Humphrey they lack reflexive consciousness. It follows, of course, that our talk of ‘awareness’, ‘intention’, ‘emotion’, ‘will power’ and the like, is not fantasy, as modern materialists like the Behaviourists would argue, but a valid description of the components of our mentality as we perceive them. Consciousness is not a myth that the proper study of nerve, muscle and behaviour will ultimately dispel.

The bulk of the essays in the book draw out the consequences and corollaries of this theory. Thus, the chief role of the creative intellect is not to solve practical or scientific problems but to hold society together: social interactions and the thinking that underlies them cannot be accomplished merely on the basis of knowledge. Society then becomes a kind of intelligence amplifier, since intellectual prowess is correlated with social success. Animals that lack a complex social routine lack the capacity to express emotions and are unlikely to experience any such feelings, given that consciousness has no value other than a social one. Apart from our direct experiences, our skill as natural psychologists is enriched by play, by dreams, by drama, by works of art, and even by the keeping of pets. All these various activities provide us with vicarious experiences which we might otherwise never have had.

The theory that consciousness meets the human need to do natural psychology is, as I remarked earlier, both ingenious and plausible, but is it correct? The answer must be, I am afraid, that we do not know. Since at one point Humphrey quotes Dryden for support for his theory, I shall go to another poet, Paul Valéry, for another point of view: ‘Credit requires that walls of coffers be opaque, and the interchange of human things between men requires that brains be impenetrable.’ Some students of animal behaviour have indeed argued that deception is fundamental to animal communication; and presumably the best deception is based on self-deception since it precludes involuntary tell-tale signs that might give the deceiver away. Yet to deceive oneself necessarily presupposes that one part of the mind is inaccessible to another. It could accordingly be evolutionarily advantageous that certain motives are unconscious. However, the split between what one can and cannot be consciously aware of does not merely concern those matters that are of interest to psychoanalysts: it also reaches into the very stuff of mundane psychology – how we perceive, think, remember and imagine. None of the processes that underlie these various and marvellous capacities is totally open to conscious inspection. The visual world, for example, is presented to us in a way that is as real as the stone that Dr Johnson kicked in order to refute Dr Berkeley’s Idealism. We have no access to the sequence of processes that vision must depend on. The phenomenal reality of the visual world is a triumph of the adaptive nature of the mind. What we see is really a representation of the world, and one that differs from, say, what house flies or dogs see. But if we were conscious that the visual world is a representation, then we would be more likely to doubt its veridicality and to treat it as something to be pondered over – a potentially fatal debility in the event of danger. The coffers are not transparent, and that is why psychology is so difficult.

Perhaps there is no inconsistency between this view and Humphrey’s theory of natural psychology, but the contrast between them highlights a major problem for any theory of consciousness: how is one to test it empirically? This is a peculiarly difficult problem for two reasons. First, it is not obvious what a theory of consciousness should explain. Unlike, say, the mechanism of inheritance, it is not clear what needs to be accounted for: merely specifying that the theory should explain the subjective experience of consciousness contrives to be somehow both vague and ambitious. Second, the consequences of consciousness are difficult to observe. Indeed, it is doubtful whether there are any clear diagnostic signs that an organism is self-conscious. We are conscious, of course, but what about babies, and dogs, and crocodiles?

The most substantial evidence that Humphrey presents is the phenomenon of ‘blind-sight’. Certain brain-damaged patients report that they are blind in certain regions of the visual field. Yet if they are asked to point at a light shining in such a region, they are able to do so remarkably well even though they have no awareness of seeing the light. It is as though they can see without being conscious of what they see. Humphrey has ingeniously obtained similar findings with monkeys. He likens the phenomenon to the sense we have of the spatial position of the parts of our own bodies. We usually know where our arms and legs are, but we have no consciousness of how we know: there is no information that we can get hold of introspectively that corresponds to this sense of position.

Blindsight is a striking phenomenon, but it corroborates any theory that distinguishes conscious and unconscious processes, not merely Humphrey’s social theory. Moreover, it presents a theoretical challenge of its own, since it gives us an insight into what it would be like not to possess consciousness at all. We might still be able to do everything that we can do at present, albeit like zombies with no accessible inner mental life. We would have no more awareness of our actions than we presently have of how we know the spatial disposition of our limbs. Hence, one can always raise the following objection to any theory of the function of consciousness: why can’t the same purpose be served by unconscious processes? Human beings, for example, could have models of themselves which they consult in order to facilitate their dealings with others, but the whole process could be carried out without the phenomenal experience of consciousness – just as seeing occurs without this experience in blindsighted patients. This issue, which Humphrey wisely avoids, is perhaps the final mystery of consciousness.

Not all of Humphrey’s views are consistent. He talks at one point of the mind as a calculating machine, but at another denies that machines could think. He overlooks existing theories of the mental processes that give rise to consciousness – a vein of theorising to which a number of cognitive psychologists have contributed – since he is content to advance explanations of the evolution and function of conscious experience. These are minor blemishes. What holds his book together is not so much his arguments as his style of arguing. Humphrey doesn’t merely write in a highly accomplished way, rare among latter-day psychologists: he is also able to button-hole you so effectively that you succumb to the force of his personality. He has a distinct ‘voice’, and only when you have put the book down and ceased to be in his presence are you likely to have any doubts about what he is saying.

To return to the bomb, why do we allow its progeny to multiply out of control like the cells of some cancerous growth? Humphrey identifies several reasons. The scale of potential devastation is literally incomprehensible to us: we cannot grasp it, any more than we can grasp, say, the celestial scale of the universe. We feel helpless in the face of the might of the military-industrial complex. We deny the threat, much as we look away from the other unpleasantnesses of life. Or we have a horrified fascination with it, like spectators waiting for an accident to happen – a fascination and perhaps a temptation to let it happen that is brilliantly captured in Randy Newman’s song, ‘Let’s drop the big one now.’ We should bear in mind that all of these causes of inaction can be overcome. The situation can be saved: we are not irreversibly committed to the stupidity of spending more than we can afford on weapons that we don’t need and which we hope will never be used. Here, then, is the final link between consciousness and the bomb: we should not allow it to turn us into acquiescent robots. It has not yet fallen on us, and no blast has so far wiped away our consciousness.