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What is consciousness?

Nicholas Humphrey's new book, "Seeing Red", is a brilliant discussion of the nature of consciousness. It is only 151 pages long but packs more ideas into that small compass than many books three or four times the length. Here I'd like to single out just one.

Humphrey suggests that the reason most of us are convinced that we have souls separate from our bodies and will survive our physical deaths is because it has been programmed into us by natural selection as part of the existence of the Self. This is an illusion, as the Buddha said long ago, but it is a persistent illusion. And surely it underpins the universality and persistence of religious belief in human societies, in the face of rationalist attempts to remove it. Read the review.


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John on :

You need to warn readers that the pedantic (first) half of SEEING RED is worth enduring for the concepts that flow freely through the last half.

I would add that his frequent references to Thomas Reid should prompt one to follow through with reading works of that remarkable 18th century philosopher who wrote with remarkable clarity about the concept of consciousness.

AT risk of rehashing the American revolution, I offer the following comments about the importance of Reid to early American history: "Even the phrase, “we hold these truths to be self-evident,” which we associate with Jefferson, was taken from the Scottish philosopher and Presbyterian minister, Thomas Reid (1710-1796). The route to the knowledge of truth is not through abstract reason, he believed, but through experience. Reid wrote, “The evidence of sense, the evidence of memory, and the evidence of the necessary relations of things, are all distinct. . . . To reason against any of these kinds of evidence is absurd. . . . They are first principles, and as such fall not within the province or reason, but of common sense.” The equality of all people, that people are endowed with certain inalienable rights, is not a conclusion drawn from abstract reason, but through experience, they are “self-evident.” They are “no sooner understood than they are believed,” he said, because they “ carry the light of truth in itself.” When Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia he put the writings of Reid at the center of his curriculum. When Thomas Paine (1737-1809) was writing about the necessity of independence, he was told by Benjamin Rush to use Reid’s catchphrase “common sense” as the title of his treatise."

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