A Self Worth Having

“What I’m now thinking — though it certainly needs further work — is basically that the point of there being a phenomenally rich subjective present is that it provides a new domain for selfhood. Gottlob Frege, the great logician of the early 20th century, made the obvious but crucial observation that a first-person subject has to be the subject of something. In which case we can ask, what kind of something is up to doing the job? What kind of thing is of sufficient metaphysical weight to supply the experiential substrate of a self — or, at any rate, a self worth having? And the answer I’d now suggest is: nothing less than phenomenal experience — phenomenal experience with its intrinsic depth and richness, with its qualities of seeming to be more than any physical thing could be.”

So says Nicholas Humphrey, in this interview at Edge.

Nicholas Humphrey is a research psychologist whose interests are wide ranging: He studied mountain gorillas with Dian Fossey in Rwanda; was the first to demonstrate the existence of “blindsight” after brain damage in monkeys; and is the only scientist ever to edit the literary journal Granta. Thirty years ago he breathed life into the newly developing field of evolutionary psychology with his theory about “the social function of intellect.” His more recent ideas concern the nature of phenomenal consciousness.

Unlike Daniel C. Dennett, who sees the role of philosophers as disabusing people of their “primitive” ideas about the nature of consciousness, Humphrey believes that we should take these primitive intuitions at face value. If people say that the problem is what it “feels like” to be conscious, then the problem is indeed to explain “feeling.” Humphrey and Dennett are a pair of bookends. Humphrey has been described as a “romantic scientist”, who believes in the heuristic value of stories that go beyond the limits of established facts. But he would probably not agree that there is a hard and fast line between facts and stories. “I’m me,” he says. “I’m living an embodied existence, in the thick moment of the conscious present. I’m trying to work out why.”