Saturday, April 28, 2007

Seeing Red - questions triggered by reading the book by Nicholas Humphrey

At the suggestion of my colleague David Russell, with whom I share an interest in the biology of cognition, I spent some time late last year reading this book by Nicholas Humphrey. The publisher's blurb says:

'Humphrey offers a daring and novel solution (to the question what is the point of consciousness), arguing that sensations are not things that happen to us, they are things we do--originating in our primordial ancestors' expressions of liking or disgust. Tracing the evolutionary trajectory through to human beings, he shows how this has led to sensations playing the key role in the human sense of Self.'

Here are some of the thoughts I jotted down as I read the book (the references below to first and second-order understandings come from our book).

1. I liked the personality of the author that emerges through the writing. Also the use of diagrams, figures, analogies and metaphors.

2. I imagined as I read being in the same room, if not the same conversation, as Humberto {Maturana} and Nicholas.

3. I wondered why they were not already in some form of conversation - as appears evident from the lack of reference to Maturana's work (or indirectly through Varela)?

4. I felt the explanations that Nicholas offers and those of Humberto intersect - they are potentially illuminating of each other - and thus for us who engage with both, it is possible to see /ask things we did not see/ask before.

5. I liked the experiential grounding from which the explanations flow.

6. Some metaphors and thus explanations jarred - channels, information, encoded etc (and other first order metaphors).

7. I was unclear on where the author stands on the mind-body duality other than the bold explanation of it being an evolutionary outcome. I will mull on this.

8. Part of my concerns re (7) relate to the role that other receptors (e.g. peptides) may play in cognition and also the importance of the role of the history of the nervous system (as a closed system) structurally coupled within an organism to an environment (for example see 'Molecules of Emotion' by Candice Pert).

9. Can you smell carrots: (Figure 12) seems, in our terms, a second order explanation?

10. I would like to talk more about how we can talk about experience- we could start with 'What is required of an experience if it is to be such that a subject can proudly be the subject of it? (p. 125.)

11. What would happen if he changed the starting question? i.e. it was no longer a question about consciousness

12. I need to look up effable in the dictionary!

13. The explanation based on action seems to resonate with Maturana's 'all knowing is doing'.

14. In figure 15 why does he go straight to a brain rather than a network?

15. What would Maturana's account of living in language (or language using us) bring to this account? Also the braiding of emotioning and languaging?

16. p. 93 - but one's body can deceive! (e.g. referred pain)

17. Might we claim that projective empathy (Humphrey) and love (Maturana) were the same phenomenon?

18 The reference to Nietzsche I found illuminating - and would like to have had this theme developed - relates to what it is to be social?

19. The explanations pp. 105-6 - is this a mechanism for ethics arising (as per Heinz von Foerster) - act so as to maximise choice? Also (further down) imagination.

20 I find use of 'subjective present' jarring in that it conceals our structural coupling.

21. Were Argyris and Schon grappling for some aspects of 'stretched time' in their distinctions between reflection in action and reflection on action?

22. Discussion on past present and future pp. 117-8 not as satisfying (for me) as the ripple story of Maturana's (an ever expanding wave front when a pebble is thrown in a pond - also a metaphor for evolution).

23. Could temporal thickening be related to molecular dynamics e.g. lags or life cycle of peptides?

24. 'lifts the subject out of zombiedom' - lets discuss.

25. Will human consciousness destroy the conditions for its existence?

Here is how some others reacted to the book. This review was less enthusiastic.

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