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Seeing Red: a study in consciousness

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Nicholas Humphrey
Belknap Press (USA, March 2006, UK, April 2005)

'Consciousness matters. Arguably it matters more than anything. The purpose of this book is to build towards an explanation of just what the matter is.'

Nicholas Humphrey begins this compelling exploration of the biggest of big questions with a challenge to the reader, and himself. What is involved in 'seeing red'? What is it like for us to see someone else seeing something red?

Seeing a red screen tells us a fact about something in the world. But it also creates a new fact - a sensation in each of our minds, the feeling of redness. And that's the mystery. Conventional science so far hasn't told us what conscious sensations are made of, or how we get access to them, or why we have them at all. From an evolutionary perspective, what is the point of consciousness?

Nicholas Humphrey offers a daring and novel solution, 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. The Self, as we now know it from within, seems to have fascinating other-worldly properties. It leads us to believe in mind-body duality and the existence of a soul. And such beliefs - even if mistaken - can be highly adaptive, because they increase the value we place on our own and others' lives.

'Consciousness matters', Nicholas Humphrey concludes with a striking paradox, 'because it is its function to matter. It has been designed to create in human beings a Self whose life is worth pursuing.'

Nicholas Humphrey is professor in the Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science at LSE.

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Press cuttings

Sensational visions of self
(29 Sep 06)
Book review of Seeing Red: a study in consciousness, written by LSE professor Nicholas Humphrey.

New Scientist
Consciousness: because your worth it (24 June 06)
In Seeing Red, Nicholas Humphrey proposes that the feeling of mattering - at least to ourselves - is no shallow egoism but a powerful explanation for the evolution of consciousness. A review of Professor Nicholas Humphrey's new book.